Current Affairs 11th April

Dolphin boom in Odisha’s Chilika lake #GS3 #Environment

The population of dolphins in Chilika, India’s largest brackish water lake, and along the Odisha coast has doubled this year compared with last year. The wildlife wing of the State Forest and Environment Department released the final data on the dolphin census conducted in January and February this year, indicating a spectacular growth in numbers.

Divided into 41 units, wildlife activists, academicians, Forest Department officials, NGO members, boat operators and researchers from the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, participated in the estimation exercise.

The population estimation exercise for dolphins and other cetacean species covered almost the entire coast of Odisha. Three species were recorded during the census, with 544 Irrawaddy, bottle-nose and humpback dolphins sighted this year, compared with 233 last year.

Wildlife activists are elated over the sizeable growth in the population of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which are mostly found in Chilika lake, jumping from 146 in 2020 to 162 this year. Apart from Chilika, 39 Irrawaddy dolphins were sighted in the Rajnagar mangrove division, though their number has come down from 60 in 2020.

The highest growth has been noticed in the case of humpback dolphins. Only two humpbacks were sighted in the Rajnagar mangrove in 2020. In 2021, however, this population grew astronomically to 281.

In 2020, the weather conditions were really bad.This year, our teams came across some large groups of humpback dolphins near Ekakula and Habelikhati areas, close to the Gahirmatha Olive Ridley nesting ground.

“These humpback dolphins were not part of any riverine systems, so they cannot be identified as residential mammals. They were spotted travelling along the Odisha coast and the number is likely to fluctuate in the next census.

India, China agree to avoid new incidents on border #GS2 #IR

India and China have agreed at the 11th Corps Commanders talks that the completion of disengagement in “other areas” would pave the way for the two sides “to consider de-escalation of forces and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquillity and enable progress in bilateral relations”.

“The two sides had a detailed exchange of views for the resolution of the remaining issues related to disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

The two sides agreed on the need to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols. They also agreed to jointly maintain stability on the ground, avoid any new incidents and jointly maintain peace in the border areas.

No joint statement

The two sides also agreed that it was important to take guidance from the consensus of their leaders, continue their communication and dialogue and work towards a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest.

With disengagement complete on both banks of Pangong Tso in February, the focus of the talks is now on disengagement from patrolling points (PP) at Gogra and Hotsprings.

‘India, U.S. differ on rules-based order’ #GS2 #IR

What does UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) tell us about the statements from India and the U.S.?

UNCLOS is fairly straightforward on this. You have a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, an additional 24 nautical miles as a contiguous zone where you can have some law and order, policing etc., and a 200 nautical mile EEZ which you are free to exploit, with fisheries or sea-bed mining but where you do not have territorial rights. Military ships can go through even territorial waters on what is called innocent passage. But India insists on notification not only for its territorial waters but even its EEZ.

In Lakshadweep, there is another complicated issue called Straight Baselines, which allows countries to claim a larger area of water around an island group. The U.S. has challenged that as well. UNCLOS does not permit continental states like India to claim Straight Baselines, but only archipelago states like Indonesia or the Philippines.

So there is a dual challenge here, including to the Straight Baselines, which makes this latest FONOP different.

So India’s claims, both on notification and on Straight Baselines, are not backed by UNCLOS?

Absolutely. I must preface this by saying the U.S. of all countries has itself not ratified UNCLOS.

At the end of the day, when the U.S. talks about a rules-based international order, India is not following it. Neither the Straight Baseline claim nor notification is rules-based. I wonder whether there is a message to both China and India. The message to China, whose extravagant claims the U.S. has challenged in the South China Sea, is ‘we don’t do this only to you’. To India, it is ‘straighten out your rules-based order business’.

How does all this sit with the Quad — India, U.S., Australia and Japan — advocating a rules-based order for the region?

I presume when you say rules-based order, you’re talking about UNCLOS. I can’t see on what basis the Quad can implement UNCLOS. Do we do it on the U.S.-based understanding or Indian understanding? There are huge differences.

At the end of the day, international law is about might being right. What the U.S. does as FONOPs, only the U.S. can do. When a Chinese surveillance ship came near the Andamans, the Indian Navy allegedly chased it away. Now, you don’t chase away the U.S. Navy. The other future scenario to consider is, will the Pakistan Navy come by and send a ship through India’s EEZ, or the Chinese and Pakistanis carry out a joint exercise there? Perhaps UNCLOS itself needs revisiting.

IAF to adopt new process to lease refuelling aircraft #GS2 #Governance

The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is looking to lease mid-air refuelling aircraft, will adopt a new methodology for the process based on number of hours per year of availability as criteria.

“The leasing will be based on hours of availability per year indicating the minimum and maximum hours required,” the official said. “We will use the leased tankers for training purposes and keep the existing IL-78s in service for operational purposes,” the official stated.

On the number of refuellers that would be leased, the official said it would be decided based on the responses the IAF receives. The IAF presently has six Russian IL-78 tankers and is looking at leasing of a few tanker aircraft to meet immediate requirements as the deal for procuring six new tankers has repeatedly failed to fructify.

The IAF is also looking to lease Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA) to fill the immediate shortage for training rookie pilots. With the follow-on contract for Pilatus trainers now scrapped, the leased aircraft would plug the gaps in training till the indigenous HTT- 40 being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is inducted. A Request for Information was recently issued for leasing of BTA.

The IAF has 75 PC-7 MK-II BTA procured from Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. under a Rs. 4,000 crore deal in 2012 for which deliveries were completed by end 2015. However, following allegations of corruption the follow on deal for additional aircraft was scraped.

With Kiran trainers being obsolete and indigenous HTT-40 in advanced trials IAF is looking to plug the gaps for a short term through leasing of trainers About 20 aircraft could be leased for four-five years, officials had stated earlier.

The option for leasing of military equipment was introduced in the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020. The three services have since listed several platforms for leasing to cater for immediate shortages.

‘Reduce health inequities to tackle pandemic challenges’ #GS3 #SnT

A study on the public health situation during the COVID-19 pandemic here has recommended urgent action for reducing health inequities to face the challenges posed by the spread of the infectious disease that has led to the loss of livelihood and productivity, increase in poverty and decline in nutrition levels.

Jaipur-based Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) has identified some primary aspects of inequities, while underlining the need to integrate and address various determinants at the individual, community and the health system levels. Its study found that 40% of the health outcomes could be measured through social determinants.

IIHMR chairperson S.D. Gupta said here on Saturday that lack of accessibility and affordability, poverty, lack of education, inequitable distribution of income and lack of proper nutrition were the gaps which had caused major concerns in the health sector during the pandemic. The transformation of public health could only be achieved through equity, he said.

Global collaboration

The study affirmed that the global health leadership should work together, improve data collection, identify and tackle the root cause of inequities and act beyond borders by sharing resources such as testing kits, treatment drugs and vaccinations with the low-income countries. Dr. Gupta said these critical actions would be useful for a State like Rajasthan, which had a difficult geography.

We have been able to fill the gaps for maternal mortality and child mortality, but nutrition has been a challenge. This is primarily because of the factors of deprivation playing a huge role. Along with the bridging of gaps caused by inequities, a larger picture of health should be highlighted through Sustainable Development Goals with the focus on universal health coverage.

The study called for action on “emergency use authorisation” as a mechanism to facilitate the availability and use of medical countermeasures, including vaccines, during public health emergencies. Empowered logistics and supply chain management could help deal with the pandemic, it said.

The IIHMR has recently established a School of Public Health (SPH) here to make policy intervention for building public health capacity and skills in Rajasthan. The SPH is expected to play an important role in healthcare management in the post-COVID-19 scenario by extending support to the State government in harnessing new technologies.

Meghalaya villagers oppose dam on Umngot #GS3 #Environment

Stiff resistance from at least 12 villages in Meghalaya has cast a cloud on a 210 MW hydroelectric project on Umngot, considered India’s clearest river. The villages are near the border with Bangladesh in East Khasi Hills district but the dam is proposed upstream in the adjoining West Jaintia Hills district.

The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) had on Friday scheduled a public hearing for the project to be executed by the otherwise cash-strapped Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited (MeECL).

Hundreds of people from more than a dozen villagers obstructed officers from conducting the public hearing at Moosakhia in West Jaintia Hills district on Friday. The MSPCB officials faced a similar situation at Siangkhnai in East Khasi Hills district on Thursday.

The locals fear that the project, if executed, would cause irreparable losses by wiping out their areas from the tourism map. The project documents say people of 13 villages along the Umngot are likely to lose 296 hectares of land due to submergence if the dam comes up.

Indus and Ganges river dolphins are two different species #GS3 #Environment

Divergent species

Currently, they are classified as two subspecies under Platanista gangetica and this needs a revision. The study estimates that Indus and Ganges river dolphins may have diverged around 550,000 years ago.

The international team studied body growth, skull morphology, tooth counts, colouration and genetic makeup and published the findings last month in Marine Mammal Science.

DNA analysis

The corresponding author of the study Gill T. Braulik from the University of St. Andrews, U.K. explains about the DNA analysis to The Hindu: “To collect mitochondrial DNA, one would normally use skin samples or blood and hair. But in this instance, we didn’t really have access to fresh tissue samples. So we got ancient DNA out of skulls and skeletons, which were 20 to 30 to even 150 years old. Looking at the sequences in the DNA, it was quite clear that the Ganges dolphins and the Indus dolphins were quite different.”

The paper notes that “comparative studies of animals in the two river systems are complicated by the fact that they occur in neighboring countries separated by an unfriendly international border…Thus, sharing of samples or data between countries is extremely challenging.”

One of the authors of the paper Ravindra K. Sinha from Patna University explains: “The Ganges dolphin is a Schedule I animal under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and has been included in Annexure – I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), so you cannot transfer any tissue or sample to foreign countries without getting CITES permission from the Competent Authority of Government of India.” Another reason was that finding dead animals were uncommon because they either float downstream or sink, and museum collections worldwide contain only a few specimens and most of them are damaged.

Conservation status

The Indus and Ganges River dolphins are both classified as ‘Endangered’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Dr. Sinha who has been studying Ganges dolphins for almost four decades explains that physical barriers such as dams and barrages created across the river reduced the gene flow to a great extent making the species vulnerable;

He adds that river flow is also declining very fast as river water is being diverted through the barrages and this has affected the dolphin habitats. “Previously fishermen used to hunt dolphins and use their oil as bait, but though that practice of directed killing has stopped and they are not being hunted intentionally they end up as accidental catches. Also, before the 1990s, we had oar boats and country boats; but now mechanised boats are also causing accidental injury to the dolphins.”

Sources of pollution

Being a part of the Ganga Action Plan, Dr. Sinha monitored a large stretch of the river and noted that both point and non-point sources of pollution are affecting the dolphin habitat. “Recently we saw the Chinese river dolphin go extinct. Though the Indian government has given legal protection to the dolphin, more ground action and close work with local communities are needed to help them survive,.

The abolition of FCAT #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: On April 4, the Centre notified the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, issued by the Ministry of Law and Justice. The Tribunals Reforms Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in February, but was not taken up for consideration in the last session of Parliament.

The President later issued the ordinance, which scraps the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a statutory body that had been set up to hear appeals of filmmakers against decisions of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), and transfers its function to other existing judicial bodies.

Eight other appellate authorities have also been disbanded with immediate effect. The ordinance has amended The Cinematograph Act, 1952, and replaced the word ‘Tribunal’ with ‘High Court’.

When did the FCAT come into being?

In 1983, a decision was taken to establish the FCAT, a statutory body under The Cinematograph Act, headed by a member from the legal fraternity. Before the FCAT, filmmakers had no option but to approach the court to seek redressal against CBFC certifications or suggested cuts. So, the FCAT acted like a buffer for filmmakers, and decisions taken by the tribunal were quick, though not always beyond reproach.

How important was the FCAT in the certification process?

Films meant for distribution in theatres require to be certified as ‘U’ (unrestricted public exhibition), ‘UA’ (unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12), ‘A’ (restricted to adult audiences) or ‘S’ (restricted to specialised audiences such as doctors or scientists) by the CBFC, which has an examining committee and a revising committee.

According to observers, the CBFC was increasingly getting stacked with people close to the ruling dispensation, both the Congress and the BJP. Of late, the body has been headed by chairpersons who have ruled with a heavy hand and ordered cuts to films critical of the government.

The clash between the film fraternity and the certification body became more pronounced in 2015 with the appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairman of the CBFC, and the FCAT had to step in often to sort out disputes.

“In the context of a ban on a film or an order to delete scenes and dialogues from a film, the FCAT was called upon to frame the objections of the certification board in the context of the constitutional framework of freedom of expression.

Some recent films like Shaheb Bibi Golaam and Lipstick Under My Burkha , both released in 2016, got a favourable hearing from the FCAT. The documentary, En Dino Muzaffarnagar , made by filmmakers Shubhradeep Chakravorty and Meera Chaudhary, was denied certification.

Mr. Bhasin, who was also part of the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee, which examined the certification process and suggested recommendations, said, “Neither the Mudgal committee nor the Shyam Benegal committee recommended that the FCAT be scrapped.”

Among other objectives, the rationale for setting up the FCAT was to reduce the burden on courts by functioning as an appellate body. Mr. Bhasin added that the tribunal, under him, took swift decisions, usually in six weeks.

Why has the tribunal been abolished?

The move to abolish the FCAT along with other tribunals follows a Supreme Court order inMadras Bar Association vs. Union of India. In November last year, a two-member Bench directed the government to constitute a National Tribunals Commission.

It said the Commission would “act as an independent body to supervise the appointments and functioning of Tribunals, as well as to conduct disciplinary proceedings against members of Tribunals and to take care of administrative and infrastructural needs of the Tribunals, in an appropriate manner”.

The top court, addressing the issue of dependence of tribunals on the executive for administrative requirements, recommended the creation of an umbrella organisation that would be an independent supervisory body to oversee the working of tribunals.

“The court had expressed that the functioning of tribunals could be strengthened. So, the government cannot take advantage of the order and take shelter under it,” said Mr. Bhasin. The move to abolish the FCAT is surprising as it comes in the backdrop of the recommendations of two influential panels — the Mudgal Committee and the Benegal Committee — both of which suggested an expansion of the body’s jurisdiction.

What happens now?

Now that the FCAT has been disbanded, it will be left to the already overburdened courts to adjudicate. With the government tightening its control on over-the-top (OTT) content and ordering players in this area to set up a grievance redressal body to address the concerns of the viewers, many observers point out that the courts will have to play a greater role as an avenue of appeal.

With cases pending for years, it is anybody’s guess how long the same courts will take to adjudicate on matters of film certification. The role played by the FCAT, which used to handle at least 20 cases a month, will now have to be performed by courts. That includes watching and reviewing films in their entirety to understand the process of certification.

Running low on vaccines as cases rise #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Several States have been complaining of a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines. Their stocks, they say, would suffice for barely three to four days. On the other hand, the Centre admits that while supplies are limited, there is enough for everyone. However, it could not permit universal adult vaccination, said the government.

How bad is the shortage?

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Thursday that 13.5 crore doses of vaccines were available. Of these, around 10 crore had been administered till Saturday. The rest, about 3.5 crore, were either in the ‘pipeline’ or in stock. With India administering 30 lakh to 40 lakh doses every day, it suggests that the existing stockpile should be available for 10-13 days, though every State gets varying replenishments based on past usage, vulnerable population and requirement.

Covishield, which constitutes around 90% of the doses administered in India, is facing serious supply constraints. Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII), which produces Covishield, had earlier said that 10 crore doses of the vaccine have been supplied to the Centre since January. The original plan was to be able to step up production to 10 crore doses a month from May.

However, a fire in one of its upcoming facilities in January, which the company initially said would not affect supply, has now reportedly upset these plans. Currently, the SII says it can supply around 6 crore doses a month, and Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin, says it can supply 1 crore doses a month, according to a presentation made to the Prime Minister’s Office on April 8.

What are the States saying?

Cutting across party lines, several States have flagged shortages in the last few days. Andhra Pradesh said it had only 1.38 lakh Covaxin doses and 3.06 lakh Covishield doses as of April 6. On average, the State has been administering 1 lakh doses every day, with inoculations falling below 70,000 on some days.

In a note to the Centre on Friday, Odisha’s Chief Secretary said the State, while prepared to inoculate over 3 lakh people every day, had to shut down two-thirds of its vaccination centres because of “lack of supply” and that several districts were in a ‘stock-out’ situation and unable to continue the vaccination drive. Since March 31, Odisha had been vaccinating nearly 1.5 lakh to 2.5 lakh people every day, but it registered a dip starting April 6, when numbers plummeted to as low as 83,000 on April 7.

Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said the State would need at least 40 lakh doses per week and as of Thursday afternoon, it had around 12 lakh doses left. For most of this week, the State has averaged between 3.5 lakh to over 4 lakh inoculations per day.

Several news reports, ranging from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal, have spoken of people who signed up for their shots but were turned away on the scheduled date. One of the prominent vaccination centres in Mumbai, BKC Jumbo, shut its gates on Friday after running out of stocks and police had to be called in to disperse the crowd. In Kolkata and Patna as well, several people were turned away due to dwindling stocks.

Data from the Ministry of Health suggest that while there are dips in vaccinations during the weekends and overall vaccines administered showed a daily increase earlier, beginning April 3, there has been a noticeable dip across States. From March 27 to April 3, the average daily inoculations zoomed from about 20 lakh a day to 40 lakh, reaching an all-time high on April 5 at 45 lakh. However, since then, this has gone down to about 30 lakh.

What is causing the deficit?

Starting April 1, the Centre permitted anyone above the age of 45 to get vaccinated. This came nearly a month after India started seeing a visible rise in daily infections and with universal acknowledgement from government and experts that the country was in the midst of a second wave. This may explain the growing number of takers for vaccines from late March. Though India in the initial vaccination phase prioritised healthcare and frontline workers and those above 60 years of age and above 45 with comorbidities, the roll-out was planned at a time when cases had plummeted. It seemed, and several government-backed epidemiological modelling exercises proffered mathematics to support this, that India had dodged a second wave, with COVID-19 expected to extinguish itself by February.

But concerns remained, especially with new and more transmissible variants being reported internationally, and the government continued to emphasise the importance of safety measures. But electioneering, mass gatherings such as the ongoing Kumbh Mela, normalising of economic life, and an eschewing of safety etiquette may have led to a belligerent rise in infections.

Meanwhile, India has donated and exported nearly 6.45 crore vaccine doses so far, which is over two-thirds of what it has administered to its own population — over 9 crore doses. The second COVID-19 wave appears to have upset supply calculations.

When is the shortage expected to end?

Both SII and Bharat Biotech have asked the Centre for more funds to expand their facilities. The SII said it expects supply constraints till July. The PMO presentation also revealed that other vaccines — from Johnson & Johnson, Zydus Cadila, Novavax and a nasal spray-based vaccine from Bharat Biotech — would be available after July “at the earliest”. Russian jab Sputnik V, to be supplied by Dr. Reddy’s and four other manufacturers, would likely be available from May or June .

While the Centre now permits workplaces to coordinate vaccine administration, the prescribed age limits have not been changed. Thus, India, despite being among the top five countries in terms of daily vaccinations, is in the bottom half in terms of its ability to administer the two full doses or inoculating a substantial fraction of the population.

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