Current Affairs 21st May

Aerosols can travel up to 10 m; ventilation is the key, says govt. #GS3 #SnT #Environment

Aerosols can be carried in the air for up to 10 m and improving the ventilation of indoor spaces will reduce transmission, a government advisory on stopping the spread of COVID-19. The advisory, issued by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, said there was a need to remember the simple measures that could reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

Transmission risk

“Ventilation can decrease the risk of transmission from one infected person to the other. Just as smells can be diluted from the air through opening windows and doors and using exhaust systems, ventilating spaces with improved directional air flow decreases the accumulated viral load in the air, reducing the risk of transmission. Ventilation is a community defence that protects all of us at home or at work.

It recommended adding outdoor air in offices, homes and public spaces. Droplets and aerosols were the key transmission modes of the virus. While droplets fell up to 2 m from an infected person, aerosols could travel up to 10 m.

Ventilation in hutments could be improved by adding “ jaali or other simple air outlets”, apart from installing exhaust fans. For workplaces, it recommended keeping doors and windows open while air-conditioners were on.

Hospitals should ensure that vaccinations were carried out in well-ventilated areas and public transport like buses should keep windows open and use exhaust fans.


For rural or semi-urban areas, the advisory said every person entering the area should undergo a Rapid Antigen Test before entry for which ASHA and Anganwadi workers should be trained and protected.

These workers should be given N95 masks even if they are vaccinated, it added.

Declare mucormycosis an epidemic, Centre tells States #GS3 #DM

The Union government has asked the States to declare mucormycosis, the fungal infection being reported in COVID-19 patients, an epidemic.

Health facilities

In a letter to the States, Health and Family Welfare Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said declaring the black fungus infection seen in COVID-19 patients an epidemic would lead to health facilities screening for it and reporting all such cases to the government.

“In recent times, a new challenge in the form of a fungal infection, namely mucormycosis, has emerged and is reported from many States amongst COVID-19 patients, especially those on steroid therapy and deranged sugar control. This infection is leading to prolonged morbidity and mortality amongst COVID-19 patients,” he stated.

Rajasthan, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have declared it an epidemic. Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope informed the Centre that black fungus had claimed 90 lives in the State so far. Eight people had died of the infection in Haryana, which has reported 316 cases. Rajasthan has 100 black fungus patients at present, while Tamil Nadu has reported nine cases.

National Archives will be safe: Minister #GS2 #Governance

The government is responsible for the records at the National Archives and will store them safely during the Central Vista redevelopment project.

Mr. Patel told The Hindu that the historic National Archives building, housing all the “important” records, would not be touched during the revamp, in which the annexe building had been proposed to be demolished and replaced with a new one.

The National Archives was shifted from Kolkata to the present building in 1926 and the annexe was added post-Independence.

As a part of the Central Vista redevelopment project, the National Archives annexe building was proposed to be replaced with a new building meant for use by researchers, according to the draft master plan prepared by the Centre’s consultant for the project, HCP Design, Planning and Management Ltd. in 2019.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was on April 13 granted environment clearance for the project that includes the demolition of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Shastri Bhavan, Krishi Bhavan, Vigyan Bhavan, the Vice-President’s house, National Museum, Jawahar Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Udyog Bhavan, Raksha Bhavan and hutments in the area and construction of new secretariat buildings at the sites. The CPWD then floated a tender on April 20 for the construction of three of the secretariat buildings at the IGNCA plot.

The National Archives annexe building was not mentioned in the environment clearance. A Culture Ministry official said the project was proposed in the “latter stages” of the redevelopment, which is expected to take until 2026 to complete, and the plan could change.

The construction of a new Parliament building and the revamp of the Central Vista Avenue has continued during the lockdown imposed in Delhi due to the second wave of the pandemic and has been challenged in court. The Delhi High Court has reserved its judgment in the matter.

‘Yet to be taken up’

In response to the Congress’s criticism of the government for continuing with the project in the pandemic, Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri said in a series of tweets on Wednesday that other components of the project were yet to be taken up, apart from the Parliament and Central Vista Avenue.

“Currently, 2,800 workers are toiling to ensure that Central Vista Avenue is ready for Republic Day 2022 & new Parliament building for winter session 2022 — the 75th year of India’s Independence. Those weaving a web of deceit are doing great disservice to their own reputation,

India in touch with Iran over Farzad B, says govt. #GS2 #IR

The Ministry of External Affairs said there is a possibility of India becoming a part of the projects unfolding in the Farzad B gas field in Iran at a later stage. The statement from the Ministry’s official spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, came days after Iran announced that it will develop the gas field domestically and signed a deal with Petropars.

“Iran wanted to involve us at a later stage. Our consortium is in touch with the Iranian authorities. The comment shows that India continues to consider itself a player in the gas rich Farzad B region discovered by ONGC Videsh Ltd.

The National Iranian Oil Company signed a deal with the Petropars Group last Monday, where Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh announced that the gas field would be developed with domestic support. It came as a setback to the Indian efforts in Farzad B, which has spanned more than a decade.

China completes Tibet highway #GS2 #IR

China has completed the construction of a strategically significant highway through the world’s deepest canyon in Tibet along the Brahmaputra river, enabling greater access to remote areas along the disputed border with Arunachal Pradesh in India.

The highway, official media in China reported this week, took seven years to complete and passes through the Grand Canyon of the Yarlung Zangbo river, as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet. This is the “second significant passageway” to Medog county that borders Arunachal, the official Xinhua news agency reported, directly connecting the Pad township in Nyingchi to Baibung in Medog county.

The highway will reduce the distance between Nyingchi city and Medog from 346 km to 180 km and will cut the travel time by eight hours.

The project, undertaken by the China Huaneng Group, required an estimated investment of over 2 billion yuan (around $310 million), Xinhua reported.

The construction, which began in 2014, is part of a wider infrastructure push in border areas in Tibet. In November, China began work on a strategically important railway line — its second major rail link to Tibet after the Qinghai-Tibet railway that opened in 2006 — that will link Sichuan province with Nyingchi.

That project was considered important enough for President Xi Jinping to officially launch it, as he called it “a major step in safeguarding national unity and a significant move in promoting economic and social development of the western region”.

Zhu Weiqun, a senior Party official formerly in charge of Tibet policy, was quoted as saying by state media that the railway will help “transport advanced equipment and technologies from the rest of China to Tibet and bring local products out”. He said, “If a scenario of a crisis happens at the border, the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials.”

The first segment of the line within the Sichuan province, from Chengdu to Yaan, was completed in December 2018. Work on the 1,011-km section from Yaan to Nyingchi will be finished in 2030.

Civilian settlements

Another part of the border infrastructure push is the construction of new civilian settlements, along with the expansion of existing smaller hamlets, along border areas, some of which lie in disputed territories claimed by India and Bhutan, to strengthen China’s control over the land.

In 2017, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government launched a plan to build “moderately well-off villages” in border areas, under which 628 “first line and second line villages”, referring to those right on the border and others in remote areas slightly further within, would be developed in the prefectures of Ngari, Shigatse, Shannan and Nyingchi, along China’s borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal.

An investment of 30.1 billion yuan (about Rs. 30,000 crore) was announced for the project, covering 62,160 households and 2.4 lakh people, and includes plans to resettle residents to live in the new settlements.

Last year, satellite images emerged showing a new village called Pangda built 2-3 km into what Bhutan sees as its land. On January 18 this year, another village built 4-5 km into what India sees as its territory in Arunachal was seen via satellite images. Indian officials said this land has been under China’s effective control since 1959 and there were military barracks there earlier.

The civilian settlements, along with the new infrastructure connectivity, are seen as aimed at bolstering China’s control over the areas.

Will act within 7 days of request, says MHA on FCRA accounts #GS2 #Governance

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) informed the Delhi High Court that it would release authorisation certificates to operationalise the FCRA (Foreign Contribution [Regulation] Act) bank accounts of non-government organisations (NGOs) within seven days of receiving a request.

The court was hearing a petition moved by 10 NGOs that their foreign contribution account in the State Bank of India’s main branch in Delhi be operationalised.

Even if an NGO had applied before the earlier deadline of March 31, the accounts were not operational for want of an FC6C certificate. After NGOs moved court, the deadline was extended to June 30.

The SBI said on May 17 that “out of the total 22,598 active FCRA associations, 17,611 entities (NGOs and Associations) approached SBI for opening of FCRA accounts”. It claimed that it had opened accounts of 78% of the applicants.

“There is a difference between opening an account and operationalising it. The SBI opened the account but it cannot function till the bank receives an authorisation certificate from the ministry.

The Ministry also gave a relief to NGOs whose registration was expiring between September 29, 2020 and May 31,2021. They had to apply for renewal of certificates or registration by May 31, which has now been extended to September 30.

‘One person can spread virus to 406 others’ #GS3 #SnT

A COVID-19 infected person not following any social distancing measure can spread it to as many as 406 people in 30 days. He was quoting a study conducted at a stem cell research laboratory in the University of California, San Diego.

The projections have been made by a team led by scientist Robert A.J. Signer, according to which a 75% reduction in social exposure could restrict the spread to just 2.5 people in 30 days.

Quoting a media report on a survey involving 2,000 respondents across 25 cities, Mr. Agarwal said 50% of the people did not wear a mask and of them, 64% covered the mouth but not the nose, while 20% wore the mask on the chin and 2% on the neck. Only 14% wore the mask correctly, covering nose, mouth and chin and with a clip on the nose, he said urging the people to follow social distancing guidelines diligently.

Mr. Agarwal said even a single case had the potential of triggering further spread of infection if necessary precautions were not taken.

At the Health Ministry briefing, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director-General Balram Bhargava said one company had already submitted the application for COVID-19 home testing kit and those of three others were in the pipeline. The kit, priced at about Rs. 250 a unit, would soon be available in the market.

Home testing kits

Dr. Bhargava said any person could buy a test kit, download the required mobile application and register, carefully read the user manual, conduct the test oneself, click a mobile image and upload it in the system. The test result would be given on the mobile phone. In order to ensure patient confidentiality, the data would be saved in a secured server.

The country’s weekly test positivity rate stood at 15%. On May 18 and 19, more than two million tests were conducted across the country. Despite the increase in testing, positivity had declined from 23% a few weeks ago to 13%. By June 30, the country would have achieved the capacity of 18 lakh RTPCR and 27 lakh rapid antigen tests a day.

Earlier, Mr. Agarwal said a decline in active cases had been registered in the past 15 days. On May 3, the active cases were 17.13% of the overall cases, while now they were 12.1%.

The recovered cases had also gone up from 81.7% to 86.7%. He said 69% of the active cases were limited to only eight States. However, in 21 States, recoveries were more than the daily reported active cases.

Modi flags COVID-19 risks for children #GS3 #SnT

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told officials that empathy and resoluteness in the face of COVID-19 was essential while also flagging that mutations of the novel coronavirus had raised concerns for youth and children.

Addressing a video conference of District Magistrates from 54 districts across 10 States in the presence of their Chief Ministers, Mr. Modi said intensive presence of the administration and empathetic dialogue with people in rural areas would go a long way in addressing the spread of the disease in those areas.

“My experience of rural areas is that they need clear information about standard operating procedures. If informed correctly of the SOPs they follow it religiously. Clarity is required with regard to rural population; they are disciplined in carrying forward what is required and this presence and clarity of the administration will boost the courage in these areas to face this situation.

Make a team, hold a dialogue, offer clarity in terms of SOPs and resources. The second wave mutations have raised alarm bells for youth and children too. We need to prepare for what lies ahead. The first thing to do is to collect data on contagion rates among young people and children. Analyse it, this will help you in planning for the future,” he said.

He said field experience was invaluable in coming up with practical and dynamic policy interventions.

Both in the case of dealing with the pandemic and for vaccination campaigns, the Prime Minister said, extensive records should be maintained that would give direction to where the policy should be tweaked and what went right or wrong.

“This pandemic has occurred after a gap of 100 years. You are facing situations that no one has faced in a century; you need to keep extensive records, so that future generations may know what happened and how it was dealt with. The records for the previous pandemic were not extensive, and we must not repeat that,” he said.

Staying vigilant

He said while it “is true that active cases may be coming down”, experience had shown that one could not let the guard down. “Masking and distancing should be emphasised. Government bodies, people’s representatives, civil society groups, a collective responsibility needs to be fostered,” he said.

“Vaccination calendar should be publicised via media platforms to reduce problems. Every pandemic has taught us, innovation and upgrade is key to dealing with them. The virus mutates – it is ‘ bahurupia ’ [deceptive] and ‘ dhoort ’ [malevolent],” he said.

Mr. Modi laid special emphasis on reducing vaccine wastage. “Wasting even one shot is to deprive one person of the shield it provides. When you review the figures in your districts, that should also be an area of focus. Tier 2 and 3 cities especially should analyse this,” he said.

Jaishankar may meet U.S. vaccine makers #GS2 #IR

As the government gears up to tackle the growing vaccine shortage, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is expected to travel to the U.S. next week to discuss procurement with American companies. Mr. Jaishankar is expected to meet U.S. officials and executives from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in Washington and New York.

The Minister’s discussions with the vaccine manufacturers are expected to focus on the availability of doses in India at the earliest.

The External Affairs Ministry did not confirm Mr. Jaishankar’s dates for travel to the U.S., which would be his first such visit since U.S. President Joseph Biden assumed office..

“We remain engaged with U.S. entities on the prospects of procuring vaccines from the U.S. and also perhaps manufacturing them in India subsequently. This would augment our vaccine availability.

“I would like to emphasise that all vaccines that may be procured from abroad would need to be as per our regulatory guidelines. I understand that the U.S. has also indicated that any vaccine that it sends abroad would be after obtaining FDA [Food and Drug Agency] clearance for product quality,” Mr. Bagchi said, referring to possible delays in the release of AstraZeneca doses given that the FDA is still carrying out what the U.S. State Department called a review of “all doses made at the plant where AstraZeneca doses were produced”.

According to the sources, India continues to worry about the U.S. strictures on the export of vaccine ingredients or raw materials needed for manufacturing in India under its “Defence Production Act”, that is still an issue despite the Biden administration’s decision last month to divert some of its orders towards India. In a tweet on May 5, U.S. Charge D’Affaires Daniel Smith had announced the arrival of vaccine components that would enable the manufacturing of 20 million doses of the Covishield vaccine at the Pune-based Serum Institute of India.

However, according to officials, the DPA-driven restrictions will still pose a problem for future production of vaccines in India. The EAM and his team will also discuss plans for the production of Johnson and Johnson’s single-shot ‘Janssen’” vaccines at Hyderabad-based Biological E.

U.S., Russia at odds over military activity in the Arctic #GS2 #IR

The Biden administration is leading a campaign against Russian attempts to assert authority over Arctic shipping and reintroduce a military dimension to discussions over international activity in the area.

As Russia assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the U.S. rallied members to oppose Moscow’s plans to set maritime rules in the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Norway to Alaska, and its desire to resume military talks within the eight-nation bloc. Those talks were suspended in 2014 over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The effort reflects growing concerns in Washington and among some NATO allies about a surge in Russian military and commercial activity in the region that is rapidly opening up due to the effects of climate change.

At a meeting of Arctic Council Foreign Ministers in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the group should maintain its focus on peaceful cooperation on environmental issues, maritime safety and the well-being of indigenous people in the region.

Mr. Blinken stressed the importance of upholding “effective governance and the rule of law” to ensure that the “Arctic remains a region free of conflict where countries act responsibly.”

Several other Foreign Ministers, including those from Canada, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, echoed Mr. Blinken’s call to keep the Arctic peaceful and free of conflict.

U.S. panel supports India in its fight against virus #GS2 #IR

The U.S. House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), on Tuesday, unanimously passed a resolution in support of India as it faces a devastating COVID-19 wave.

The resolution, although largely symbolic, demonstrates support in Congress for the U.S.’s efforts to assist India fight the pandemic.

The resolution, introduced by House India Caucus co-chairs Brad Sherman (Democrat) and Steve Chabot (Republican), expresses solidarity with the people of India and recognises the Biden administration as well as the U.S. private sector and Indian Americans for their assistance to India.

The U.S. public and private sectors , including individuals, had provided over $500 million in assistance to India to fight this wave of the pandemic, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.

The Biden administration is working with international vaccine access programme COVAX to determine how it will distribute 80 million doses of spare vaccine to other countries in the coming weeks.

The HFAC resolution also notes that India “lifted its export ban on certain therapeutics” in response to a request by the U.S. government last year when the pandemic was surging in America.

World’s largest iceberg breaks off from Antarctica, says ESA #GS1 #Geography #GS3 #Environment

A huge ice block has broken off from western Antarctica into the Weddell Sea, becoming the largest iceberg in the world and earning the name A-76. It is the latest in a series of large ice blocks to dislodge in a region acutely vulnerable to climate change, although scientists said in this case it appeared to be part of a natural polar cycle.

Slightly larger than the Spanish island of Majorca, A-76 had been monitored by scientists since May 13 when it began to separate from the Ronne Ice Shelf, according to the U.S. National Ice Center.

The iceberg, measuring around 170 km long and 25 km wide, with an area of 4,320 sq km is now floating in the Weddell Sea. It joins previous world’s largest title holder A-23A — approximately 3,880 sq. km. in size — which has remained in the same area since 1986.

A-76 was originally spotted by the British Antarctic Survey and the calving — the term used when an iceberg breaks off — was confirmed using images from the Copernicus satellite. Icebergs form when hunks of ice break off from ice shelves or glaciers and begin to float in open water.

Gujarat, Diu bore the maximum brunt of cyclone Tauktae: RMSI #GS3 #DM

Cyclone Tauktae is estimated to have caused losses to the tune of Rs. 15,000 crore, including Rs. 9,000 crore to the agriculture and transportation sectors, an initial assessment by RMSI, a provider of geospatial and engineering solutions, shows.

Gujarat and Diu have suffered 65% of the losses. While Gujarat and Diu were badly impacted, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa faced flooding and soil erosion along the coast due to a mild surge. The wind impact was primarily on electric poles and telecom towers, leading to disruption in power supply and communication in some areas.

The initial potential loss from cyclone Tauktae is estimated to be Rs. 15,000 crore. Out of this, at least 65% of the losses are expected from Gujarat and Daman & Diu. The remaining losses are expected from Kerala, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.

“Nearly, 25-40% losses are expected in the agriculture sector in all the above impacted States. About 15-20% from transportation sector, primarily ports, and a similar loss share from the utility sector, primarily power and telecom.

Fortunately for the insurance industry, the loss would be minimal as the cyclone had spared the cities. “The loss is primarily driven by impact to ports and vehicles and potentially agriculture as no major city has been impacted. The structural losses are to the tune of Rs. 100 crore.