Current Affairs 14th February

Boost disinvestment #GS3 #Economy

The Centre should incentivise States to come clean on their fiscal deficit positions, bring off-Budget liabilities above board and take up their own strategic disinvestment programmes for State-owned public sector enterprises. 

Terming the Centre’s decision to “transparently” acknowledge a fiscal deficit of 9.5% of GDP this year as “a very positive development”, Mr. Singh said that the Centre could incentivise the States to adopt a similar practice to enhance the confidence of investors in India’s overall debt and fiscal deficit trajectory.

There is a decisive case for State governments to take a leaf out of the Central government’s book and drop opaque practices and off-Budget borrowings.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/incentivise-states-for-disinvestment-in-pses/article33833558.ece

UT status for J&K temporary, says Amit Shah #GS2 #Governance

Union Home Minister Amit Shah told the Lok Sabha that the government would restore full statehood to Jammu and Kashmir at an appropriate time, and claimed that the Narendra Modi government has done more for the Union Territory since Article 370 was read down in August 2019 than those who ruled it for generations.

Mr. Shah was replying to a discussion on the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in Lok Sabha. The Home Minister criticised some Opposition members for their claim that the proposed law negated the hopes of the region of getting back its statehood.

Mr. Shah was replying to a discussion on the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in Lok Sabha. He also criticised some Opposition members for their claim that the proposed law negated the hopes of the region of getting back its statehood.

The J&K Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill seeks to merge the all-India services J&K cadre with the Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre. He said the region’s Union Territory status is temporary just like Article 370 itself granting special status to Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to be.

Decentralisation and devolution of power have taken place in the UT following the revocation of Article 370, Mr. Shah said, noting that panchayat elections saw over 51% voting. “Panchayats have been given administrative and financial powers for local development, something they lacked earlier.

Now people chosen by the masses will rule Jammu and Kashmir, not those born to “kings and queens”, he said, attacking dynastic parties in the region. “Even our rivals could not allege any wrongdoing in these polls which were conducted fairly and peacefully.

Work on two AIIMS in the region has begun, and the Kashmir Valley will be connected to the railways by 2022.

He assured the people of Jammu and Kashmir that “no one will lose their land”, adding that the government has sufficient land for development. Mr. Shah said the government expects that around 25,000 government jobs will be created by 2022.

Benefit of the News- About J&K new status

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/ut-status-for-jk-is-temporary-amit-shah/article33833481.ece

Nanophotonics: Hyderabad scientists manipulate tiny crystals #GS3 #SnT

Crystals are normally rigid, stiff structures, but researchers from University of Hyderabad have shown how crystals can be sliced and even bent using atomic force microscopy. Manipulating them with precision and control comes in very useful in the field of nanophotonics, a qualitative, emerging field where the aim is to go beyond electronics and build up circuits driven entirely by photons (light). 

If the technique can be successfully developed, this can achieve an unprecedented level of miniaturisation and pave the way to all-optical-technology such as pliable, wearable devices operated by light entirely.

Bending light path

Light, when left to itself moves along straight paths, so it is crucial to develop materials and technology that can cause its path to bend along what is required in the circuits. This is like using fibre optics, but at the nanoscale level using organic crystals. 

The Hyderabad group has demonstrated how such crystals can be lifted, bent, moved, transferred and sliced using atomic force microscopy. They add a crucial piece to the jigsaw puzzle of building an “organic photonic integrated circuit” or OPIC.

Generally, millimetre- to centimetre-long crystals were bent using hand-held tweezers. This method lacks precision and control. Also, the crystals used were larger than what was required for miniaturisation.

Microresonators

Recently, the group has extended the atomic force microscopy technique to deliberately move, bend, slice or cleave and transfer (from one substrate to another) micro-sized waveguiding crystals, and the results were published in Angewandte Chemie. 

Not stopping with this, they have also shown how other crucial elements needed for nanophotonics can be developed using this technique. “Not only crystals but also polymer microcavities or microresonators (light-trapping elements) can be precisely manipulated to create photonic structures

The researchers have named this technique “mechanophotonics” as this method can be used to generate the basic elements needed to build up a photonic integrated circuit.

Usually photonic integrated circuits are made using silicon, silicon-based and metallic materials using electron beam lithography. This group on the other hand uses organic materials and atomic force microscopy to manipulate them.

The research collaboration extends to several countries: Germany, UAE, Spain and India. As Prof. Chandrasekar explains: “We receive the macro-sized samples from our collaborators, we grow microcrystals suitable for mechanical manipulation with atomic force microscopy, and investigate the photonic properties in our Hyderabad lab. We have also been making these crystals in our labs.”

The field is in its infancy and the results are qualitative. The group next plans to fabricate high-density photonic circuits using organic passive, active and energy-transfer mechanisms. “We believe that this futuristic area will gain momentum with the arrival of new molecular materials with exciting mechanical and optical attributes and improvement of the micro-spectroscopy techniques

Benefit of the NewsAbout Nanophotonics

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sci-tech-and-agri/nanophotonics-hyderabad-scientists-manipulate-tiny-crystals/article33833523.ece

Spotlight on dams after Chamoli disaster #GS3 #DM

The story so far: A snow avalanche triggered possibly by a landslide caused a flash flood in the Rishi Ganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, on a sunny morning on February 7, washing away a functional small hydroelectric project and destroying the under-construction 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project of the NTPC on the Dhauli Ganga river. 

The death toll from the disaster was 38 as of Friday. Rescue teams were straining to locate scores of people who remained missing. These were mostly workers in the two power projects, besides some local residents.

Why did it happen?

Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that satellite imagery from Planet Labs indicated that the landslide-avalanche event at an altitude of 5,600 metres occurred in a glacier in the Rishi Ganga catchment, and covered an area of 14 sq. km, causing the flood. 

In the initial rescue, 12 people trapped in a tunnel in the NTPC project and 15 from the Rishi Ganga project were saved. While a fuller picture of the loss of life and destruction will emerge only after rescue operation and inquiry is complete, the disaster that struck Chamoli has turned the spotlight on several ongoing dam-based hydroelectric projects, rampant road building, tree felling for projects, and also construction practices in the State.

Why is the Chamoli incident of concern?

Uttarakhand, which gained a distinct identity in the year 2000 as a separate State carved out from Uttar Pradesh, is geologically unique. As a part of the lesser Himalaya, in the populated terrane — a region bounded by earth faults — it remains active in terms of deep movement of rock assemblages. 

As the northward moving peninsular India presses on, the lesser Himalaya rock assemblages are compressed and are pushed under the huge pile of the Great Himalayan rocks, the latter riding southwards onto and over the lesser Himalaya. The movement has been going on since the MCT [the Main Central Thrust] was formed 20-22 million years ago. 

The MCT, running east-west along the Himalaya, is where the Indian and Eurasian plates connect. The result of these geological stresses, scientists say, is weakening of rocks, making the development of large dam projects in the region unwise.

There are several researchers who refer to other characteristics that call into question the wisdom of committing vast resources to large dam-building in Uttarakhand. 

A key concern is the active nature of rock fractures, known as faults, which respond to earthquakes, creating enormous instability, especially along slopes. In an assessment of the proposed 315-metre-high India-Nepal Pancheshwar dam project across the Kali river in the Kumaon region, with a drainage area of 12,000 sq. km, Shubhra Sharma and colleagues wrote in Current Science in 2019 that the chosen site could witness a strong earthquake in the Nepal area from the Rangunkhola Fault, perhaps of a magnitude of 7.4, with a potentially serious fallout.

Prof. Valdiya, who advocated small low-impact dams of less than 5 megawatts as an alternative, pointed out that investigations done along rivers Kali, Darma, Gori, Western Dhauli, Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, which offer the bounty of hydropower, have been found to be tectonically active in recent times across the area of the MCT. 

In fact, many locations in a 50-km area within the MCT zone have witnessed several earthquakes of varying intensity, including those with magnitudes of over 5. 

Although dam builders assert that their structures can withstand even high-intensity earthquakes, researchers say lessons from large structures, such as the Tehri dam, should also be studied, since there are concerns about induced seismic effects caused by the repeated filling and emptying of the reservoir, which may be deforming the area around the young dam.

Moreover, the geology of mountains in many parts of Uttarakhand is such that the threat of landslides is high. Rocks here have been weakened by natural processes across time and are vulnerable to intense rainfall as well as human interference, in the form of house-building and road construction. The careless disposal of enormous debris from mining and construction projects has added to the problem, blocking flow paths and providing additional debris. In fact, researchers from IIT Roorkee writing in theIndian Geotechnical Journal (2018)estimate that various tourist locations such as Gopeshwar, Joshimath, and Badrinath fall within high-hazard and very high-hazard zones for landslides, as does Chamoli town, calling for preventive and protective measures.

Should Uttarakhand worry about the effects of climate change?

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate found that in the Himalayan ranges, there could be variations in overall water availability, but floods, avalanches and landslides were all forecast to increase. Changes in monsoonal precipitation could also bring more frequent disasters.

In 2013, catastrophic loss of lives was seen in the floods that swept Kedarnath. They were triggered by heavy rainfall over a short period in June, first destroying a river training wall, and then triggering a landslide that led to the breaching of the Chorabari moraine-dammed lake, devastating Kedarnath town.

What this means is that aberrations in the Indian summer monsoon caused by changes to long-term climate could produce even greater damage, by bringing debris and silt down the river courses, destroying physical structures, reducing dam life, and causing enormous losses. 

These problems are also aggravated by the erosion of mountain slopes and the instability of glacial lakes in upper elevations. On the other hand, as the IPCC Special Report points out, the retreat of glaciers in the high mountains has produced a different kind of loss — of aesthetic and cultural values, declines in tourism and local agriculture.

Are expensive hydroelectric projects worth the investment today?

In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha in September 2020, the Power Ministry stated that in the 25 MW-plus category, there are projects with a combined capacity of 12,973.50 MW under installation. Of this, eight projects totalling 2,490 MW are in Uttarakhand, most of them by the Central government. The Ministry describes this source of power as “highly capital-intensive” but without recurring cost, renewable and cheaper compared to coal and gas plants. 

But a response it gave earlier this month in the Lok Sabha indicates that it has been offering incentives since March 2019 to make hydropower attractive. These include classification of large hydropower projects as Renewable Energy sources, creating a separate category for hydropower within Non-Solar Renewable Purchase Obligation, tariff rationalisation to bring down tariff, and budgetary support for putting up enabling infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that in 2019, the average levelised cost of electricity in India was $0.060 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for small hydropower projects added over the last decade. In comparison, the global cost for solar power was $0.068 per kWh in 2019 for utility-scale projects. 

Though hydropower has been reliable where suitable dam capacity exists, in places such as Uttarakhand, the net benefit of big dams is controversial because of the collateral and unquantified damage in terms of loss of lives, livelihoods and destruction of ecology. 

Chipko movement activist Sunderlal Bahuguna argued that large dams with an expected life of about 100 years, that involve deforestation and destruction, massively and permanently alter the character and health of the hills.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-miscellaneous/tp-others/spotlight-on-dams-after-chamoli-disaster/article33833443.ece

Probing the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: After several months of delay, concerns over access, and bickering between China and the U.S., a 17-member team from the World Health Organization began a field visit on January 29, 2021, to unearth the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has so far spread to over 108 million people and killed nearly 2.4 million people across the globe. 

According to the WHO, the field visits included the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Huanan market, and the Wuhan CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) laboratory. It said the team was “limited to visits organised by Chinese hosts and had no contact with community members, because of health restrictions”, Reuters reported.

What are the four scenarios of virus origin that were investigated?

The WHO team undertook scientific investigations to look at four main scenarios for the origin of the virus. The first possibility is that a single individual had got infected with the virus through direct contact with bats and then spread it to others before the virus made its way to Wuhan. 

The second scenario is of the virus crossing the species barrier from bats to humans through an intermediary species, which has still not been found. The third possibility is that the virus originated outside China and spread to Wuhan through imported frozen food, and the last scenario is that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been studying coronaviruses.

When and where did the outbreak begin in China?

Though the first cluster of cases was reported from Wuhan in December, early data suggest that the virus could have been circulating in the Chinese city for several weeks before it was identified. According to the WHO, there have not been any large-scale outbreaks in the Chinese city or outside before December 2019. But the team has not ruled out the possibility of the virus circulating in other regions well before December 2019.

What role did the Huanan wet market play?

Though the first cluster of cases reported in Wuhan had links to the wet market, it soon became apparent that several infected people did not have any link to it. There is not enough evidence to determine how the virus entered the wet market, but there are two likely possibilities — the virus was introduced into the market either through one or more infected people or through frozen food.

Has the possibility of a lab-leak been ruled out?

The WHO fact-finding team had initially rejected the possibility of a lab-leak saying it is “extremely unlikely” and that further investigation into it was not required. However, at apress briefingon February 12, WHO Chief Tedros A. Ghebreyesus appeared to backpaddle, saying that upon discussing with a few team members “all hypotheses [including the lab-leak] remain open and require further analysis and studies”.

Did the virus directly jump from bats to humans?

The investigation by the WHO team strongly suggests that though bats were the reservoirs of the virus, it is unlikely that the virus jumped directly from bats to humans. The virus may have crossed from bats to another animal species and finally to humans. The direct spillover of the virus from bats to humans is unlikely as Wuhan is miles away from any natural bat habitat. The team has not been able to find the intermediary host.

The role of an intermediary host gains currency as previous coronavirus outbreaks — SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) — have occurred through civets and camels, respectively. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, with its distinctive spike protein that allows it to bind to human receptors and enter cells, may have either evolved in the intermediate host itself, making the virus spread readily from one person to another, or it may have gained the ability for human-to-human transmission in humans after jumping from an intermediate host. 

In the latter case, the virus may have evolved certain characteristics in the intermediate host and then gained other features within a human host. The virus may have been silently spreading among humans in a limited fashion before gaining the ability to cause a large outbreak, and then the pandemic.

What do the genome sequence data reveal about the virus origin?

Based on the analysis of public genome sequence data from SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses, scientists have not found any evidence that the virus was made in a laboratory or engineered by humans.

Dr. David Robertson, Professor, Viral Genomics and Bioinformatics at MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, in an email toThe Hindusays based on genome sequence data, there are no signatures of the virus being altered or manipulated in a lab. 

Although showing differences in sequence similarity, SARS-CoV-2 looks very much like a natural virus transferred from the same horseshoe bat species as the first SARS virus, and is now evolving as would be expected in the human population.

According to him, there is substantial proof that the virus has not been engineered in a lab. “First, if one was to engineer a SARS-like virus, you would copy SARS-CoV-1 more closely. This new virus is highly divergent to SARS-CoV-1. There are lots of these viruses in bats and evidence that some could use human cells. So, the emergence of this new virus isn’t all that surprising. He also says genome sequencing would detect any genetic changes made to the virus.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-miscellaneous/tp-others/probing-the-origins-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/article33833439.ece

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