Current Affairs 22nd Aug

War of words over silence on Article 370 #GS2 #Governance

A war of words erupted between Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference and Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference on Saturday, a day after the virtual meeting of 19 Opposition parties, chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, stayed silent on the issue of the reading down of Article 370.

Taking on the NC and Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party, Mr. Lone said, “ How can J&K leaders justify their presence in the meeting if they could not convince the leaders to talk about Article 370… What is the national Opposition’s stance?”

States earn more when basic oil prices increase #GS3 #Economy

The States and the Centre need to work out how to address people’s concern about high fuel prices, Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Saturday, reiterating that States earn more when basic oil prices rise.

Stressing that India’s pandemic-affected economy was recovering, Ms. Sitharaman promised to provide any support that was required to spur the recovery further. “We see signs of recovery and hope the economy will recover, and are willing to give any help that would be needed to push the recovery process more,” she said.

On the issue of fuel prices, the Minister said: “As regards fuel price, the Centre as well as the States tax fuel. The Centre taxes at a fixed rate, the States tax at ad valorem . So whenever there is an increase in the basic fuel price, the States’ ad valorem- based taxes will also increase.”

Asserting that the country’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) were now getting the recognition they were denied for decades, Ms. Sitharaman said the government had taken several measures to help them over the past two years.

Ms. Sitharaman was speaking in Lucknow at the launch of an alternative investment fund called Ubharte Sitare Fund that was announced in last year’s Budget. The Minister urged the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) and India Exim Bank to work with the State administration to popularise its offering for small enterprises.

A battery powered by human sweat #GS3 #SnT

In a first, scientists from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, have introduced a stretchable battery that is powered by human perspiration.

Gurunathan Thangavel, a native of Archampatti in Karur district, Tamil Nadu, is among the three scientists who designed and developed the battery that can discharge about 20 hours of electricity derived from just 2 ml of sweat.

The soft stretchable battery comprises printed silver flake electrodes that generate electricity in the presence of sweat. The battery looks like a paper bandage that can be affixed to a flexible sweat-absorbent textile which draws power from sweat and transfers it to wearable devices, including smart watches and arm straps, via Bluetooth.

To demonstrate its potential use when it becomes incorporated in wearable biosensors and other electronic devices, the scientists tested their device with artificial human sweat. “The battery does not contain heavy metals or toxic chemicals unlike conventional batteries, which are often built using unsustainable materials that are harmful to the environment and at times pose a threat of explosion. We have applied to patent this technology,” says Dr. Thangavel, a Senior Research Fellow in NTU’s School of Material Science and Engineering.

“Conventional batteries use organic electrolyte, thereby limiting their application in skin-interfering electronics. Our battery conforms to the skin of users by our well-synthesised hydrophilic elastomeric binder. This device will help to do away with toxic materials used in batteries,” he said.

In a separate trial, the team reported that an individual wearing the sweat-powered battery around the wrist and cycling on a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes was able to generate a voltage of 4.2 V and output power of 3.9 mW that was sufficient to power a commercial temperature sensor device and send the data to a smartphone via Bluetooth.

“By capitalising on perspiration, we could be looking at a more environmentally friendly way of powering wearable devices that does not rely on conventional batteries. It is a near-guaranteed source of energy produced by our bodies,” he quoted Lee Pooi See, Dean of NTU Graduate College, who led the study, as saying.

Adding that the third member of the team is Lyu Jian, Research Fellow, Materials Science and Engineering, NTU, Dr. Thangavel said the stretchable textile retained a lot of sweat.

Arunachal Inheritance Bill faces stiff opposition #GS2 #Governance

The draft Arunachal Pradesh Marriage and Inheritance of Property Bill, 2021, envisaging land rights for girls has met with stiff opposition in the State.

Various student organisations said they would not allow the Bill to be passed in the Assembly unless tribal women marrying men belonging to the non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (non-APSTs) were stripped of ST status and benefits.

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) said the Bill was being brought without consultations with the stakeholders and, if passed, would pave the way for non-APSTs to settle down in the State permanently.

“This Bill is a bid to structurally change the customary laws or traditional settings of the State’s tribal people. It is aggressive and undemocratic in nature and largely undermines the views and opinions of all the community-based organisations,” AAPSU general secretary Tobom Dai said.

“Opposing the draft Bill doesn’t mean we are against the women of Arunachal Pradesh. But the government should first publish the draft it has been preparing on the issue of the offspring of non-APST men married to APST women. The criticism led the government to clarify that it has no plans to table the Bill in the upcoming session.

Stamp of support: postal cover on Kashmir’s magic carpet #GS1 #Culture #GS3 #Economy

Kashmir’s famed hand-knotted carpet, with its intricate and colourful floral patterns, adorned a special cover of the Indian Postal Service this week. This comes as a shot in the arm of the J&K Handicrafts and Handloom Department’s efforts to push for the Geographical Indication (GI) certification, upscale the dwindling trade, and restore its lost glory.

“The inclusion of Kashmir’s hand-knotted carpet as a postal cover will help educate people about GI tagging and reach a wide audience. The situation demands the building of trust and restoring consumer confidence to buy our authentic carpets,” Mahmood Ahmad Shah, Director, Handloom and Handicrafts Kashmir, told The Hindu .

To win over buyers, Mr. Shah said his department was planning to shift from the traditional label system to the Quick Response (QR) code for carpets.

“A buyer can use his mobile phone to know about the knots per inch, yarn and the material used. The buyer can also access the name of the craftsmen who wove it. It will reinforce the confidence of a buyer,” Mr. Shah said.

The Kashmir carpet faces tough competition internationally from the products of countries such as China, Turkey and Belgium, and internally from carpets manufactured in Jaipur, Agra, Bhadohi and Amritsar.

Carpet export fell to Rs. 299 crore for 2019-20, the Handicrafts Department’s figures show. According to one estimate, carpet exports stood at Rs. 369.81 crore in 2016-17. “Yes, there is a slump in the sale of carpets. The fresh dip is due to the pandemic, which affected the export of carpets badly,” Mr. Shah said.

Around 80,000 local people are associated with carpet manufacturing in Kashmir, which saw a major jump in both manufacturing and exports post-1990, with the production going up from Rs. 84.55 crore in 1990-91 to Rs. 821.5 crore in 2016-17.

But the figures have been sliding.

“We are also pushing for an organised sector for the carpet industry, which remains unorganised due to multiple processes like dying, weaving, etc. being done at separate places. Fresh interventions are likely to meet the demands of the market,” Mr. Shah said.

Machine-made goods

A lot of focus of the J&K government is on discouraging the misbranding of Kashmir art and crafts. J&K’s Handicrafts Quality Control Act has armed the department with powers to promote GI labelling of products and stop the sale of machine-made items posing as hand-woven.

Famous for centuries, Kashmir’s carpet industry witnessed a boom under the 15th century ruler Zain-ul-Abidin, with weavers travelling from Persia and Central Asia to Kashmir, and the craft dominating western markets with its laborious and exquisite artwork.

In the 1990s, carpet weavers shifted their focus from woollen to silk carpets. “Silk carpets are in the luxury bracket. However, lack of silk processing units in Kashmir forced the weavers to buy [silk] from outside, which added to the cost of the carpet.

Sri Lanka elephants to get biometric ID cards #GS3 #Environment

Sri Lanka will issue captive elephants with their own biometric identity cards and ban their riders from drinking on the job under a wide-ranging new animal protection law.

Many rich Sri Lankans — including Buddhist monks — keep elephants as pets to show off their wealth, but complaints of ill treatment and cruelty are widespread.

The new measures are aimed at protecting the animals and include strict regulations around working elephants, as well as mandating a daily two-and-a-half-hour bath for each creature.

Official records show there are about 200 domesticated elephants in the South Asian nation, with the population in the wild estimated at about 7,500.

The new law will require all owners to ensure that animals under their care have new photo identity cards with a DNA stamp.

It also brings in multiple regulations for working elephants. Baby elephants can no longer be used for work — even cultural pageants — and cannot be separated from their mothers. Logging elephants cannot be worked for more than four hours a day and night work is prohibited.

There are new restrictions on the tourism industry too — from now on, no more than four people can ride an elephant at once, and they must sit on a well-padded saddle. Their use in films is banned, except for government productions under strict veterinary supervision, as is allowing their riders to drink while working.

“The person who owns or has the custody of such elephants shall ensure that the mahout (rider) is not consuming any liquor or any harmful drug while employed.

Grasping at straws: the race towards herd immunity #GS3 #SnT

In the beginning of the pandemic, when vaccines were still undergoing clinical trials, the goal was to quickly reach herd immunity through vaccination and natural infection. Herd immunity — where a large percentage of the population is infected or vaccinated so that virus spread in the population is significantly slowed or stopped — was seen as an endgame of the pandemic.

There have been instances in some countries where the virus spread has largely been under some kind of control at least for some duration. However, the emergence of highly contagious new variants, breakthrough infections even among the fully vaccinated and such people spreading the virus to others, and reinfections in the unvaccinated have made the race to reach the magical herd immunity threshold look like chasing a mirage.

No magic number

“If herd immunity is viewed as a magic number where, if we achieve X percent infection or vaccination, life will get back to normal then that is not going to happen in near term. In other words, attaining high levels of population protection to slow virus spread is an end goal, but is not the endgame,” Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore says in an email to The Hindu.

Immunologist Dr. Satjajit Rath, formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, is even more blunt in dismissing the notion of achieving herd immunity to control the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread. “Herd immunity is not, in fact, it cannot be, a prospective end goal for a public health policy, especially one aimed at a globally spreading new infection. We have no idea what percentage of population coverage will end up being effective [for] herd immunity,” he says in an email.

“It is quite likely that any state of such ‘herd immunity’ in a given community will not be stable — people move, thereby changing the demography of the ‘herd’; variants emerge, thus making the ‘immunity’ less effective, and all of these changes can well lead to loss of herd immunity.”

Dr. Rath adds: “The idea that we can aim for a stable situation of herd immunity and then just stop worrying about the pandemic has always been more wishful than real.”

Role of variants

If the Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant was 60% more transmissive than the original strain, the Delta variant is even more contagious thus requiring an even higher herd immunity threshold to break the transmission chain. It is estimated that the Delta variant may have a basic reproductive number of between 6.5 and 8, which means that herd immunity will be 85% or higher.

The next layer of complexity is seen when even fully vaccinated people get infected by the Delta variant, and such people shed virus at levels that resemble previously uninfected individuals and thus infect others. “But the duration of shedding may be shorter, which means that the overall ability of the virus to spread in previously infected or vaccinated individuals will be lower,” Dr. Kang says.

Even if the duration of virus shedding in the vaccinated is short, it makes it harder to break the transmission chain even in a population that is highly vaccinated. Thus, even the theoretical possibility of protecting through herd immunity those individuals who cannot take a vaccine gets diminished. “There is no question of ending transmission until we end infections,” she adds.

According to her, the data from Israel seems to indicate that there is strong protection from transmission with the mRNA vaccines shortly after vaccination, and this then declines with time. But she says that these are early data, and there is a lot to learn about the performance of other vaccines and over time.

Help from vaccines

“There are many more vaccines to come, and it is feasible that the next wave of vaccines or combinations of vaccines could help drive down transmission through lower levels of replication and better protection from infection,” says Dr. Kang.

“Vaccines are needed for almost everyone. Expecting the benefit to pass on to the unvaccinated does not seem to be possible with this virus,” explains epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu from the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru. Dr Rath adds that except for very rare cases of someone who already has, for example, a major life-threatening allergy-related illness, there are really no individuals who cannot take a vaccine; there are only those who do not want to take a vaccine.

Small surveys

The over 63% average seroprevalence in the country combined with increased vaccination coverage can help reduce the speed of virus spread. But more importantly, natural infection and vaccination can decrease the risk of severe disease and death even when reinfected. But the over 63% seroprevalence is only an average and has been arrived at based on a survey of less than 30,000 people in less than 10% of India’s districts. “It does not mean that two-thirds of every neighbourhood is seropositive; the reality is much more of a patchwork quilt, making any easy predictions misleading,” Dr. Rath clarifies.

This makes quickly vaccinating a large percentage of people very important. Unfortunately, the pace of vaccination is slow in India — less than 33% are vaccinated with one dose and less than 9.5% fully vaccinated — and vaccine shortages in many States have become a norm. This makes reaching the imaginary herd immunity threshold anytime soon a big challenge.

Even among the vaccinated, inequity in terms of geography and socio-economic strata is rampant. “This inequity means that the reality will be well-vaccinated and poorly-vaccinated communities living cheek-by-jowl, making any idea of stable herd immunity even less likely,” Dr. Rath notes.

Lasting immunity

Finally, by the time the entire country reaches very high seropositivity either through vaccination or natural infection to achieve herd immunity, it remains unclear if protection would last in those who have been infected/vaccinated early on. It is likely that protection from severe disease and mortality might last for several years. However, there is no data at the moment.

While Dr. Babu feels that the endgame might be a situation where we would have to live with the virus with some level of endemicity but with reduced hospitalisation and lower mortality, Dr. Kang says it is too early to give up on herd immunity.

“There are viruses that are much more infectious than SARS-CoV-2, such as measles. We have achieved reasonable control of measles and are striving to do better. We have not hit the herd immunity threshold in many parts of the world, and yet measles is no longer the major global killer it once was,” she says.

U.S. lab makes headway in nuclear fusion energy #GS3 #SnT

Nuclear fusion is a clean and green route to producing energy, as it does not involve any remnant radioactive waste products. Fusion reactions power hydrogen bombs. However, so far, fusion devices that show a net energy gain have not been demonstrated in labs.

An experiment at the U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF), within the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California, comes close to demonstrating this. In this lab, using laser beams, tiny pellets of deuterium and tritium (heavier isotopes of hydrogen) have been fused to form helium and release energy that very nearly matches the amount of energy input using the lasers.

The NIF has been trying to achieve this for nearly a decade. Now, the experiment has produced a yield that almost equals the laser energy input. To be functional, a reactor has to produce an output that is at least tens of times the input energy.

A tiny pellet of the fuel (deuterium and tritium) is placed in a cylidrical thumbnail-sized vessel, known as a hohlraum that has holes on both faces. A total of 192 laser beams are directed through the holes to strike the walls of the hohlraum. This causes the hohlraum to emit x-rays which, in turn, impinge on the pellet and compress it. The heated core of the pellet reaches 100 million degrees temperature which starts the fusion reactions. Further, the pellet has to “ignite” and only then can it reach the stage of becoming a microbomb – a deuterium-tritium fusion reactor – and release energy that can be tapped.

Laser facility

The laser facility itself occupies a large area, equal to nearly three cricket fields, and the lasers can deliver up to 500 terawatts of power using its 192 individual laser beams. This is focused into the openings in the hohlraum which contains the pellet measuring some 2-3 mm.

“The amount of laser energy used in these experiments is quite modest, 1.9 megajoule (MJ). This is approximately equal to the energy it takes to heat a large pot (8 litres) of water by 100 degrees Celsius. The amount of fusion energy produced in these experiments was approximately 1.3 MJ which is now for the first time comparable to amount of laser energy input,” says Arthur Kazdan Pak, Stagnation Science Team lead, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in an email to The Hindu . This is the first time, in a controlled laboratory setting, that an inertial fusion system ( another name for a laser driven fusion system) has produced nearly as much energy was supplied to initiate the reaction. Dr Kazdan Pak further explains: “If we do the energy accounting we estimate that the fusion energy production is approximately 5 times the amount of energy coupled from the laser to target.”

Tremendous progress

“To make a fusion reactor, hundreds of pellet implosions have to happen per second and means have to be found to extract the neutron energy as heat and produce electricity. This [experiment] is far from that stage, but the researchers have made tremendous progress in the last decade,” says P. I John, Former Meghnad Saha Chair Professor, Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar, and an expert in thermonuclear fusion.

Several steps remain before a viable nuclear fusion reactor can be realised. Ignition, or energy break-even must be achieved. Many laser pulses must be made to act per second to increase the net yield to a sufficiently high value. Then the technology to convert the neutron energy into electricity has to be developed.

Meanwhile, Dr Kazdan Pak makes a mind-blowing comparison: “The fusion energy produced is released in an incredibly short amount of time, approximately, 90 picoseconds producing close to 15 petawatts of power. This is approximately equivalent to some recent estimates of the total world power consumption, however the experiment only produces this power for an incredibly short period of time, whereas power is consumed continuously across the world.”

Rainfall at Greenland ice summit for first time #gS3 #Environment

Rain fell at the highest point on the Greenland ice sheet last week for the first time on record, another worrying sign of warming for the ice sheet already melting at an increasing rate, scientists said on Friday, August 20.

“That’s not a healthy sign for an ice sheet,” said Indrani Das, a glaciologist with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Water on ice is bad… It makes the ice sheet more prone to surface melt.”

Not only is water warmer than the usual snow, it is also darker – so it absorbs more sunlight.

Unprecedented rise

This meltwater is streaming into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise. Already, melting from Greenland’s ice sheet – the world’s second-largest after Antarctica’s – has caused around 25% of global sea level rise seen over the last few decades, scientists estimate. That share is expected to grow, as global temperatures increase.

The rain fell for several hours at the ice sheet’s 3,216-metre summit on August 14, where temperatures remained above freezing for around nine hours, scientists at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center said. Temperatures at the ice cap almost never lift above freezing, but have now done so three times in less than a decade.

In total, 7 billion tonnes of rain fell across Greenland over three days, from August 14 through August 16 – the largest amount since records began in 1950. The rain and high temperatures triggered extensive melting across the island, which suffered a surface ice mass loss on August 15 that was seven times above the average for mid-August.

The record-breaking rain is the latest in a string of warning signs. Greenland experienced a massive melting event in late July. ,when enough ice melted in a single day to cover the U.S. State of Florida in 2 inches (5 cm) of water.

That melting event and last week’s rain were both caused by air circulation patterns which meant warm, moist air temporarily covered the island. “This alarming rain at the summit of Greenland is not an isolated event,” said Twila Moon, deputy lead scientist with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Along with rising floods, fires, and other extremes, it is one of many “alarm bells” signalling the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “We really have to stay laser-focused on adapting, as wella s reducing the potential for those to become truly devastating.”

Are oil bonds to blame for high fuel prices? #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently repeated a refrain that the Centre had been unduly burdened by the cost of having to service ‘oil bonds’ issued by the UPA government, and it was this financial commitment which had mainly constrained the government’s ability to reduce excise duty and other Central levies on petroleum products so as to lessen the burden on consumers.

Interacting with the media on August 16, Ms. Sitharaman termed the actions taken by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government as “trickery” and said: “Oil bonds worth ₹1.44 lakh crore were issued by the UPA to show reduced oil prices in 2013. Who is paying for it, the Modi 2.0 government.”

She added, “Today, you are asking me why we are not reducing the prices. I am subsidising the reduction they had offered. So far, ₹70,195.72 crore has been paid as interest on outstanding bonds worth around ₹1.31 lakh crore. Another ₹37,000 crore more is payable as interest till 2025-26, taking the interest alone close to ₹1 lakh crore.”

What are these oil bonds ?

Between 2005 and 2010, the government issued long-dated Special Securities, totalling about ₹1.4 lakh crore, to oil marketing companies (OMCs), including Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation and Bharat Petroleum Corporation. These debt securities or bonds, which carry coupons ranging from 6.35% to 8.4%, were issued in lieu of cash subsidy to cover the under-recovery that OMCs sustained on account of selling petroleum products below cost. The bonds paid an annual interest to OMCs and on maturity, the face value of the bonds, too, would accrue to them. The then government opted to issue these bonds so as to reduce the annual fiscal burden and stagger the liability over an extended period of time.

Why were they issued only up to 2010?

The UPA government deregulated petrol pricing in June 2010, ending under-recovery on the fuel, and OMCs stopped suffering losses on every litre of diesel they sold from October 2014. During the five-year period that the oil bonds were issued, the price of a barrel of the Indian basket of crude oil averaged $70.15, according to the data on the website of the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell (PPAC). The retail selling price of petrol ranged from a low of ₹37.99 to a peak of ₹50.62 (in July 2008) over the same period.

What is the link between oil cost and retail fuel prices?

Besides the price of crude oil that is processed into the respective fuels, there are Central and State levies and dealer commissions that get added on to finally feed into the pump price of the petroleum products. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil kept rising during the UPA years, starting at an annual average of $39.21 in 2004-05 and climbing to a high of $111.89 in 2011-12. Prices eased slightly thereafter to an annual average of $105.52 in 2013-14, before the government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014. Since 2014-15, when a barrel on average cost $84.16, crude prices have been on a downtrend and fell to $44.82 in 2020-21. Excise duty and related Central levies have, however, risen sharply and constituted 32% or almost a third of the pump price of petrol sold in Delhi as on August 16 this year, compared with just 14% in May 2014. State taxes have increased at a more gradual pace and risen in Delhi to 23% of the pump price, from 17% in May 2014.

How relevant is the Minister’s contention?

The Centre has consistently derived far higher returns from excise duty and other levies than the expenditure it has so far incurred in relation to the bonds. Its receipts by way of excise duty alone almost doubled from ₹99,068 crore in 2014-15 to ₹1,78,477 crore in 2015-16, and was provisionally estimated at ₹3,71,726 crore in 2020-21, according to PPAC data. In contrast, while the principal outstanding for the bonds has barely changed over the last seven years — marginally declining from ₹1.34 lakh crore as of March 2014 to ₹1.31 lakh crore as of March 2021 — the interest outgo, by the Minister’s own account at a little over ₹70,000 crore, averages to just about ₹10,000 crore a year.

Will changes in AERA Act help smaller airports? #GS3 #Economy #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: In the monsoon session, Parliament passed the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The Bill, tabled in March this year and sent to a standing committee, seeks to broaden the category of airports for which the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) of India can determine tariff by amending the definition of major airports.

Why has the definition of a major airport been amended?

The AERA regulates tariffs and other charges for aeronautical services rendered at ‘major’ airports. Under the AERA Act, 2008, a major airport is one which “has, or is designated to have, annual passenger throughput in excess of three-and-a-half million or any other airport as the Central Government may, by notification, specify”.

However, it does not provide for determination of tariff for a group of airports. The Amendment Bill has amended the definition of a major airport to include “a group of airports” after the words “any other airport”. The government hopes the move will encourage development of smaller airports and make bidding for airports with less passenger traffic attractive. It plans to club profitable airports with non-profitable ones and offer them as a package for development in public-private partnership mode to expand connectivity.

Was there a need to amend the AERA Act?

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) awarded six airports — Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Mangaluru, Thiruvananthapuram and Guwahati — for operations, management and development in public private partnership mode in February 2019. Later that year, the AAI Board, in its 190th meeting held on September 5, approved leasing of another six airports — Bhubaneswar, Varanasi, Amritsar, Raipur, Indore and Tiruchi — for undertaking operations, management and development in public private partnership mode. The Ministry of Civil Aviation plans to club each of these airports with nearby smaller airports for joint development. The move follows Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget Speech this year, in which she said the government planned to monetise airports in tier-2 and tier-3 cities.

How did AERA come into existence? What tariffs does it determine?

The AERA Act was enacted in 2008 and an independent economic regulator, i.e., the AERA, was established in 2009 for determining the tariff for aeronautical services rendered at major airports. The initial benchmark passenger throughput to qualify as a major airport was 1.5 million passenger per annum (mppa), which was amended in 2019 to 3.5 mppa. According to the AERA website, there are 25 major airports. For the remaining non-major airports owned by AAI, the Ministry of Civil Aviation approves the charges for aeronautical services. There are a total of 154 airports in the country. Among these, AAI owns 136 airports and provides air traffic services over the entire Indian airspace and adjoining oceanic areas.

What are the apprehensions?

“Though this Bill proposes to make changes which appear to be lucrative for the aviation sector, however, there is a lack of clarity regarding what will be the criterion for deciding which airports get clubbed together. Will it be passenger traffic of more than 3.5 million or some other factors too? This clarity needs to be brought in to achieve the objective of the Bill,” says Poonam Verma, Partner, J Sagar Associates, adding that the government will also have to ensure that a monopoly situation is not created in the airport operating business while awarding a group of airports to the same entity.

“Balancing the interests of the private sector and the government’s objective of privatising smaller airports will be a tightrope walk,” says Jagannarayan Padmanabhan, Practice leader and Director, Transport and Logistics, CRISIL Limited. “Whether the government succeeds will also depend on how the airports are packaged and if there are enough growth prospects, economic activity or tourist attractions near the non-profitable airports that will be clubbed.”,rendered%20at%20%27major%27%20airports.&text=The%20government%20hopes%20the%20move,with%20less%20passenger%20traffic%20attractive.

Why are Chief Ministers protesting against the draft Electricity (Amendment) Bill? #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: Opposition parties and several organisations have objected to certain features in the draft Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The Kerala Assembly has unanimously passed a resolution urging the Centre to withdraw the Bill. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reiterating her opposition to the “much-criticised” Bill.

In Karnataka, farmers held demonstrations against the draft legislation. The proposed legislation, according to critics, goes against the federal structure of the Constitution as electricity is in the concurrent list. Those opposing the Bill contend that it will lead to more private players in the power sector, making electricity unaffordable for vulnerable sections, but the Centre says it has its reasons for proposing the changes.

What prompted the Centre to propose changes in the Electricity Act?

For years, electricity distribution has remained the sore point in the country’s power network. Thirty years ago, when the Centre opened up the power sector, experts argued that distribution should have been covered initially. The Electricity Act, 2003, led to thermal generation getting delicensed and States unbundling the vertically integrated State Electricity Boards into generation companies and distribution companies (discoms).

Though the idea is to promote competition and efficiency, the discoms have, by and large, remained under the control of the States. At the end of June 2021, the discoms owed over ₹90,000 crore to power producers. Thirty-six out of 56 discoms reported aggregate losses of around ₹32,900 crore as on March 31, 2020.

With the discoms saddled with structural challenges in governance and regulation, combined with the chronic problems of underinvestment, line losses and issues in billing, metering, and collection, the government has been trying to amend the Electricity Act. The present version of the draft Bill was drawn up in April 2020. Recently, Union Power Minister R.K. Singh said the revised draft, prepared in consultation with stakeholders, had been sent to the Cabinet Secretary.

What are the contours of the draft Bill?

The broad objectives of the legislation, as articulated by Mr. Singh a year ago, are: ensure consumer-centricity, promote ease of doing business, enhance sustainability of the power sector and promote green power. The draft Bill has covered nearly a dozen areas, such as distribution franchise and sub-licence, subsidy, and cost-reflective tariff. Among the remedies presented by the government through the initiative are direct benefit transfer (DBT) of subsidies, reduction of cross subsidies, role for distribution sub-licensees with regulators’ nod, the adoption of a national renewable energy policy and the establishment of the electricity contract enforcement authority.

On August 10, the Union Minister informed the Rajya Sabha that after the announcement in the 2021 Union Budget on the need for enabling consumers to choose among discoms, the Centre held discussions with a range of stakeholders. As this required an amendment to the law, the “desired procedures are being followed”, he said.

Why have several States opposed the Bill?

The proposed de-licensing of distribution has unnerved many States, from Tamil Nadu to West Bengal and Maharashtra to Punjab. The States feel that a greater role for private distribution companies and franchisees would only lead to “cherry-picking of remunerative areas” by them, leaving it to the State discoms to serve social sector obligations and rural areas. This, they feel, will lead to the States incurring massive losses.

Ms. Banerjee, in her letter to Mr. Modi, argues that while the Electricity Act, 2003, had struck a “fine balance” between the Centre and the States in the management of the sector, the proposed amendment “strikes at the root of the federal structure”. The objective of providing choices to the consumers would “end up in profiteering” by new service providers through tariff hikes.

The draft Bill is also being opposed by many political parties and farmers on the ground that DBT will do away with the heavily subsidised or free power supply to the farm sector. This is why, it is one among three pieces of legislation against which agitating agriculturists’ bodies have beencarrying on a campaign. One of the complaints of Tamil Nadu against the draft Bill is that hydro-power purchase obligation cannot be fixed separately as hydro-power generation is seasonal, monsoon-dependent and not in the control of its discom.

What is the way forward?

If the Centre and the States can arrive at a broad consensus, at least on two crucial areas of DBT and giving space for private distribution companies and franchisees, the proposed amendment can be a game-changer for the power sector, according to experts.

How will human trials for new HIV vaccine work? #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Moderna, the Massachusetts-based American biotechnology company, has indicated that it may begin human trials for a vaccine for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in September, according to the website, employing the same m-RNA platform that it has used in its COVID-19 vaccine.

How is the candidate vaccine expected to work?

Formally known as mRNA-1644, it is made in a way to stimulate the B cells of the immune system. These are a class of white blood cells that produce antibodies which can bind to invading bacteria and viruses. The larger purpose of stimulating the B cells is to generate what are called broadly neutralising antibodies (bnAbs), which are specialised blood proteins that attach to the surface proteins of HIV and disable them by accessing key but hard-to-reach regions on the virus.

Over the last decade, there have been advances in identifying new bnAbs from HIV-infected individuals that were seen to target very specific sites in the outer envelope of the HIV. Lab-based analysis and tests on animals have improved the understanding of how the knowledge of these sites can be used to make immunogens (or parts of a virus or bacteria that elicit an antibody response from the immune system. In the case of a coronavirus, for instance, the spike protein is an immunogen against which different vaccines elicit antibodies.)

One such immunogen that has been designed in the lab is eOD-GT8 60mer, developed by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and its partners. In a Phase I trial, scientists tested whether this approach would stimulate the human immune system to initiate the generation of bnAbs. This February, IAVI announced that their trial produced promising results and their vaccine had succeeded in stimulating the production of the bnAbs needed to stimulate antibodies.

The targeted response was detected in 97% of the participants. There were 48 healthy adults who had volunteered in the trial, some of whom got the vaccine and some did not. The Moderna trial is designed to investigate a way to effectively deliver the eOD-GT8 60mer immunogen using the m-RNA technology that will direct cells to make the BnAbs which will elicit immune responses against HIV. For this trial, Moderna will recruit 56 healthy adults without HIV to test the safety of the vaccine mRNA-1644 and basic immune response. The vaccine’s development involves funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Why is this approach promising?

The quest to develop an HIV vaccine is considered among the holy grails of scientific research. While treatment with Anti-Retroviral Therapy has significantly improved the longevity of those with AIDS, this is a lifelong treatment. According to the World Health Organization, there are around 37.7 million living with HIV as of 2020. Traditional vaccine approaches have not worked for HIV, and in fact, some of them have gone on to worsen infection.

RNA-based immunogens are believed to be a promising alternative because they do not involve the use of a live virus, can be made relatively easily, can be quickly deployed and safely administered. A drawback of m-RNA vaccines used to be their instability. However, the experience with the coronavirus vaccine has come as a shot in the arm. The success of m-RNA vaccines — Pfizer -BioNTech and Moderna — in reducing hospitalisation and mortality has led to confidence in the underlying platform and, therefore, fresh investments to improve it.

What are the challenges ahead?

Of the people living with HIV, over two-thirds are in Africa. Any success in containing the HIV pandemic would mean drastically cutting the rates of transmission there. However, as the experience with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines shows, getting essential jabs to the regions where they are most needed is the biggest stumbling block. Another challenge with m-RNA vaccines is that they are sensitive to temperature in storage, and is a challenge for developing countries. HIV has mutated into several variants and is an insidious virus, and it will be many years before definitive proof of the success of the m-RNA approach can be established.