Current Affairs from 22nd to 28th Feb 2015 for CDS/AFCAT/NDA/IAS
STATES TO GET MORE AID FROM CENTRE
The Centre has decided to give 10 per cent more funding to states from its divisible resources from the next fiscal. This decision is based on the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, which had suggested passing on 42 per cent of net tax receipts to the States.The Centre has decided to give 10 per cent more funding to states from its divisible resources from the next fiscal. This decision is based on the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, which had suggested passing on 42 per cent of net tax receipts to the States.
The Commission, headed by former RBI Governor YV Reddy, submitted its report on December 15. The report’s recommendations will guide allocation of resources as well as fiscal policies for five years, from April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2020. According to the Government Action Taken Report on the Commission’s recommendations in Parliament, against a total devolution of Rs3.48 lakh crore approximately in 2014-15, the total devolution to the States in 2015- 16 will be Rs5.26 lakh crore approximately, year- on-year increase of about Rs1.78 lakh crore.
The Centre has accepted ‘in-principle’ the Commission’s suggestion on revenue deficit grants. The Commission assessed the revenue and expenditure of the States for the 2015-20 period and has projected the deficit for each State after taking into account its share in Central taxes. It has recommended a grant of over Rs1.94 lakh crore to meet the deficit of 11 States. The Commission has identified 30 centrally sponsored schemes for transfer to the States, but only eight schemes would be delinked from the Centre’s support.
SC SETS UP NEW BENCHES FOR CASES
In an attempt to deal with a backlog of 10,843 cases, India’s apex court has constituted a special bench that will hear taxation cases. The move is likely to find favour with investors worried about the slow progress of tax cases in the country. The tax cases account for around a fifth of all cases before the Supreme Court.
The court constituted a similar bench to hear cases case pertaining to criminal law, with a priority for those cases where bail has been denied by a high court or a lower court. The Supreme Court has taken a crucial decision to expedite criminal appeals when a person is in custody. The norm in the Supreme Court is that a person must surrender in a Criminal SLP (special leave petition) before it can be heard, and only in rare cases is a person given exemption from surrender. Since by and large, the rule in the Supreme Court is that bail is not granted at the first stage at the stage of admission, a dedicated bench being created for hearing appeals of persons in custody would further the cause of justice both for the accused and the victim. Earlier, there was a Supreme Court order seeking to release under-trials who have spent more than half the time in jail for an offence they’re being tried for. The court gave impetus to Section 436A (of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973).
MOVING AHEAD WITH FOOD SUBSIDY RATIONALIZATION
The government has initiated a pilot project in all Union Territories and select districts in states under which consumers will be selected on the basis of their Aadhaar unique identification numbers to deliver benefits in the form of direct cash transfers or by supplying subsidized food through the public distribution system (PDS). If successful, the move could ensure better targeting of food subsidies and bring greater transparency in subsidy pay-outs. At the same time, it opens the door for cash transfers.
v The government’s decision to move to a direct cash transfer system for PDS was taken ahead of the budget. The centre was looking to implement direct benefit transfer (DBT) initially in Union territories and a few districts of the states on a pilot basis. The ministry suggested three possible models that could be adopted after complete digitization of beneficiary data linked to Aadhaar.
v The move follows the report of a government- appointed panel according to which a large chunk of subsidized food grain wasn’t reaching intended beneficiaries of the PDS and instead suggested cash transfers, which it estimated could save the exchequer Rs.30,000 crore every year. At the same time, the move to reduce the subsidy bill may be fraught with political risk and invite a potential rural backlash.
v In a letter to the states, the centre had proposed three models for transferring food subsidies to targeted households. Under the
first model, the food subsidy will be transferred to the bank accounts of beneficiaries directly every month and households will have to purchase foodgrains from the market.
v In the second model, fair-price shops (FPS) will be supplied food grains at minimum support prices (MSP) or near-market prices. Beneficiary households will purchase food grains from the FPS and all transactions will be recorded on a point-of-sale device. The difference between the FPS price and central issue price will be credited to beneficiary bank accounts against actual purchases.
v In the third model, states could follow the existing mode of manual distribution of food grains, but aided by a digitized database linked to Aadhaar. Whichever model states may choose, the directive from the centre makes it clear that the food subsidy will be linked to the Aadhaar database.
v The panel recommended the government change the national food security law to reduce the coverage from 67% of the population to 40% and gradually introduce cash transfers. The panel calculated that leakages in existing PDS is as high as 47%, meaning a large chunk of subsidized rations are not reaching intended beneficiaries, and cash transfers alone could save the government Rs.30,000 crore every year.
ACCOUNTABILITY REQUIRED FOR SANITATION
When the Swachh Bharat Mission was announced late last year, the government committed to spend Rs.1.34 trillion to build more than 110 million toilets all over India by 2019. The current budgetary allocation is Rs.4,260crore. Now, the government has no option but to significantly increase its current outlay.
Solving India’s sanitation is not merely a project of toilet construction but an exercise in behavioural change is now an increasingly accepted truth. Indeed, the prime minister recognized this fact and invested much political capital in urging the country to change its attitude towards sanitation. The instrument the government has designed to move India towards the goal of Swachh Bharat is deeply inadequate. It runs the risk of falling into the same trap of the past: promoting a system that accounts for toilets but has no accountability for sanitation.
Using all the right rhetoric, the guidelines stress the importance of behavioural change and making India free of open defecation. Moreover, in keeping with government’s emphasis on federalism, the guidelines offer states flexibility to design approaches appropriate to their needs. However, once it gets into the nuts and bolts of design, the mission goes on to do everything it can to reduce flexibility and keep the focus firmly on toilet construction. It does this by increasing the household subsidy—from Rs.10,000-12,000 per household. In 2014-15, as much as 90% of the mission’s budget was allocated to toilet construction while the total budgetary ceiling for spending on awareness-related activities, the primary mechanism for addressing behaviour change, was reduced from 15% to 8%. Of course, given the flexibility offered, states are not obliged to use their subsidy money. But it would take a bureaucrat of extraordinary commitment not to be tempted to access money when she has it and do the easy thing of meeting construction targets.
PANEL REJECTS MOVE TO TRY JUVENILES AS ADULTS
In contravention of the UN Rights of Child and in violation of Article 14 that ensures all are equal in the eyes of law, a Parliamentary Panel has shot down the government’s move to try juveniles between 16-18 years of age who have committed heinous crimes as adults on grounds that it is discriminatory. The Committee was unimpressed by the Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry’s contention that there had been a rapid increase in juveniles between the age of 16-18 years committing crimes like rape, murder and acid attacks in recent times. It has asked the ministry to review the amendments and rename the law as the word “juvenile” has a negative connotation. ““There had been a series of cases, including the Nirbhaya gang-rape, Shakti Mills rape case and others, where juveniles were involved and got away with a maximum of three years in a reformatory home. The amendments to the Juvenile Justice act were proposed by the former government in view of the public outrage after the Nirbhaya gang-rape in December 2012.
v The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data revealed that the number of children apprehended for heinous crimes, especially in the age group of 16-18 years, had gone up significantly in recent times. From 531 murders in 2002, the figure had gone up to 1,007 in 2013, while for rape and assault
crime recorded was up from 485 to 1,884 during the same period.
v According to the report, the juvenile crime accounted for only 1.2% of a population of 472 million children in the country and that this percentage had remained constant over 2012 and 2013. The committee also noted that many of the juveniles were acquitted as they were not found guilty because on many occasions, cases of rape turned out to be that of either love or elopement cases where girl’s parents subsequently charged the boy with rape.
v As per the report, the Committee can only conclude that the existing juvenile system is not only reformative and rehabilitative in nature but also recognizes the fact that 16-18 years is an extremely sensitive and critical age requiring greater protection. Hence, there is no need to subject them to different or adult judicial system as it will go against Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution.
v The report also rejected clause 7 of the JJ bill that allows for a person who was a juvenile on the date of offence to be dealt with under the criminal justice system if arrested on completion of 21 years of age.
NEW TRADE ROUTES ACROSS LOC
The government has planned to open at least eight new routes for cross-border trade between the two countries in J&K. Presently, there are two routes, Uri-Salamabad and Poonch-Rawalkote that are used for trade purpose across the Line of Control (LoC). Among the routes that the government is contemplating to make operational is also the Kargil- Skardu route that forms an integral part of the ancient Silk Route which connected Asia, Europe and Africa.
The eight trade routes that have been suggested by the government are Jhangani-Mirpur, Mendhar- Kotli, Jammu-Sialkot, Skardu-Kargil, Turtuk- Khapulu, Chamb-Nonian to Mirpur (across Munawar-Tawi), Gurez-Astoor and GilgitTitwal- Chilham (across Neelam Valley).
CHINA’S COUNTER-TERRORISM LAW HIGH ON PRIVACY
China is drafting an ambitious counter-terrorism law, which seeks to address concerns over privacy and human rights, without losing the sting to target international terror groups.
The draft law has taken into account the Charlie Hebdo terror incident in France, the Copenhagen strike, as well as the essence of the Global War on Terror led by the United States. Besides, the legislation has been sensitised by last year’s deadly terror attack at Kunming station, in the country’s Yunnan Province, which left dozens dead, and scores injured. Without specifically referring to Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed prevalence of pervasive surveillance in the United States, a Xinhua commentary points out that global terrorism should not be a warrant for retreat on citizens’ rights, and China’s first Counter Terrorism Law sends a welcome signal in this regard.
The draft advocates establishing mechanisms that would ensure that access to private phone and Internet records, go through a strict approval
procedure. The information that is gathered should also be used solely for the purpose of counterterrorism and not otherwise. A similar approval must also be obtained to inquire into, seal up, seize or freeze assets.
According to analysts, the draft law addresses two separate domains. It challenges the western narrative on counterterrorism and human rights by pointing to a more rational Chinese alternative. Besides, it hopes to shore up CPC’s legitimacy, especially among China’s cyber connected youth.
Despite their focus on safeguarding individual rights, the Chinese are also incorporating hard provisions that tackle modern terror threats, including those posed by drones. The draft is therefore asked those departments responsible for airspace control, civil aviation and public security to tighten their management of airspace and aircraft, as well as aviation-related activities. The emerging legislation also proposed setting up an anti-terrorism intelligence gathering centre.
SOUTH KOREA, US MILITARY DRILL
The U.S. and South Korean militaries will begin their annual joint winter drills in South Korea on March 2, which is a regular source of tension with North Korea.
The exercises involve hundreds of thousands of American and South Korean troops. The drills involve computer simulations as well as field exercises, which wrap up on April 24. According to Washington and Seoul, the exercises are necessary to ensure readiness for a possible North Korean attack. Pyongyang calls the drills a rehearsal for invasion of North Korea and routinely demands their cancellation.
Last month, the U.S. rejected a proposal from North Korea to stop nuclear tests in exchange for a suspension of the exercises. Pyongyang has conducted three test detonations of nuclear weapons, the latest in early 2013. North Korea often test-launched missiles during the U.S.-South Korean exercises. Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who came to power in late 2011, missile tests have become more frequent. Last year, North Korea fired over 100 missiles of various types. Earlier this month, North Korea fired five short-range missiles into the sea to its east, according to South Korea’s defense ministry. North Korea is currently conducting its own winter military drills.
INDIA AND THE WORLD
INDIA & JAPAN SET TO FORGE AIRCRAFT DEAL
Being wary of China’s assertive behaviour in the Asia-Pacific region, India is all set to acquire the massive Shin Maywa US-2i amphibious aircraft from Japan as part of their expanding bilateral strategic partnership. The defence acquisitions council (DAC), chaired by Manohar Parrikar, will take up the proposal to empower the joint working group (JWG) to negotiate the purchase of at least 12 US-2i aircraft for the Navy for around $1.3 billion. It will be like an AON (acceptance of necessity) that the Navy requires 12 US-2i as of now, and the commercial negotiations for them can begin. The Coast Guard, in turn, may require five such planes.
The JWG set up by India and Japan has been discussing cooperation on the US-2 amphibian aircraft, including technology transfer and licenced production, since 2013 but a decisive stage seems to have been reached now. The JWG is expected to accelerate progress in the discussions and preparations for a roadmap for the development of the Indian aircraft industry through the US-2 aircraft cooperation, as was discussed when the Prime Minister met Shinzo Abe last year. This envisages a much bigger project in the making, which will probably kick-off with the initial defence acquisition of 12 aircraft. The government has also asked if Japan was interested in fielding its Saryu- class submarines for the over Rs 50,000 crore project to build six stealth submarines in India.““But Japan, with no experience of hawking its military wares, is likely to find it difficult to participate in a competition that will also have Russia, France, Germany and others in the fray. The US-2i project, however, is more of a direct government-to- government deal without such obstacles. ““The US- 2i is quite a unique aircraft, capable as it is of short take-offs from land as well as water with a range of over 4,500 km. Powered by four big turbo-props, it can land even on rough seas amid three-metre high waves. Though basically designed for air-sea search and rescue operations, the US-2i can also rapidly transport 30 combat-ready soldiers to “hot zones” in an emergency. The aircraft will give a huge boost to India’s operational logistics in areas like the far-flung but strategically critical Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
RAILWAY BUDGET 2015-15
The Railway Budget envisages an investment of Rs. 8.5 lakh crore in next five years. The Minister suggested that the money could be raised from multiple sources – from multilateral development banks to pension funds. In the sphere fund raising the Minister suggested to go in for partnership with key stakeholders – States, PSUs, partner with multilateral and bi-lateral organizations other governments to gain access to long-term financing. Also, get technology from overseas. The private sector could be roped in to improve last-mile connectivity, expand fleet of rolling stock and modernize station infrastructure.
The thrust will be on revamping management practices, systems, processes, and re-tooling of human resources.
Rail Budget has defined four goals for Indian Railways. These goals are-
v Boosting Customer Experience v Ensuring Safer Travel v Modernization of Railway Infrastructure v Enhancing financial viability of IR
The key highlights of the railway budget 2015- 16 are:
v No hike in passenger rail fares. v Investment of Rs. 8.5 lakh crores will be in
Railways in next 5 years.
v Operation 5 minutes for passenger to buy unreserved ticket in 5 minutes.
v Airplane-type vaccum toilets and Bio toilets in trains.
v CCTV cameras in women’s coaches for safety. Rail tickets to be booked 4 months in advance.
v Speed to be raised to 200 km per hour over 9 railway corridors.
v Wi-fi facilities to be extended to more stations. Online booking of wheelchairs for senior citizens.
v All India helpline 138 will be working 24 X 7.
v A toll free number 182 for women’s security. v Four universities will be developing four
railway research centres.
v 10 Satellite railway terminals in major cities Centrally managed Rail Display Network is expected to be introduced in over 2K stations over the next 2 years
v 917 road under-bridges and over-bridges to be constructed to replace 3,438 railway crossings; at a cost of Rs 6,581 crore
The proposals on capacity augmentation of Indian railways in Railway Budget 2015-16 are as follow:
v De-congesting networks with basket of traffic-generating projects will be the priority
v Priority to last-mile connectivity projects v Fast-track sanctioned works on 7,000 kms of
v Commissioning 1200 km in 2015-16 at an investment of Rs. 8,686 crore, 84% higher Y- O-Y.
v Commissioning 800 km of gauge conversion targeted in current fiscal.
v 77 projects covering 9,400 km of doubling/ tripling/quadrupling works along with electrification, covering almost all States, at a cost of Rs. 96,182 crore, which is over 2700% higher in terms of amount sanctioned.
v Traffic facility work is a top priority with an outlay of Rs. 2374 crore .
v Award of 750 km of civil contracts and 1300 km of system contracts in 2015-16 on Dedicated
v Freight Corridor (DFC); 55 km section of Eastern DFC to be completed in the current year.
v Preliminary engineering-cum-traffic survey (PETS) for four other DFCs in progress.
v Acceleration of pace of Railway electrification: 6,608 route kilometers sanctioned for 2015- 16, an increase of 1330% over the previous year.
14TH FINANCE COMMISSION REPORT
The report of the 14th Finance Commission (FC) was released recently. The Finance Commission is a constitutional body set up every five years to define union-state financial relations. It rebalances the respective roles of the Union and States in economic and fiscal management by recognizing the capacity and potential of differential development models across the country; the related need for according larger policy discretion to the federation’s units; and preserving the overarching policy responsibilities of the Union in terms of overall macroeconomic management.
To these ends, it takes as its guiding principle the seventh schedule of the Indian Constitution, which divides the areas of jurisdiction between the centre, states and the concurrent fields. The increased share of tax devolution from the centre to the states, 42% of the total divisible tax pool as against 32% previously, needs to be seen in this context. The resources that used to flow via centrally sponsored schemes are now reoriented towards tax devolutions. This means a fundamental shift from discretionary resource transfers by the Union towards mandatory or unconditional sharing.
The 14th FC does not distinguish between plan and non-plan revenue expenditure, which implies that enhanced tax-share devolving to the states includes what used to flow by way of normal financial assistance via the Planning Commission, other central assistance for plans, etc., barring some leading national programmes. The 10 percentage point jump in the share of states from the total tax pool is actually not all that much in the light of this corresponding reduction.
According to some estimates, the existing tax- share of the states of 32%, when adjusted for central assistance, grants, etc., works out closer to 39%. So it is the restructuring of resource-sharing, composition and discretion that is important. A shift to unconditional financial transfers by most of the devolution transpiring through tax devolution means more discretion and powers with the states now. As corollary, the centre’s fiscal space is well preserved or isn’t significantly lowered relative to earlier revisions.
The suggestions of the 14th FC include proposals such as:
Reorienting the determinants of individual states’ tax-share from fiscal discipline to per capita income and area;
Set-up of an autonomous, independent GST Compensation Fund through legislation as comfort provision to the states preceding a sweeping taxation reform;
Establishment of an independent fiscal council to undertake ex-ante assessment of fiscal policy;
Maintenance of centre’s fiscal deficit at 3% of GDP from 2016-17 onwards with states’ fiscal deficit anchored to similar annual limits likewise;
A steady lowering of subsidy bill from 2% of GDP in 2014-15 to 1.6% in 2015-16 and to 1% by 2019-20 with corresponding increases in capital expenditure from 1.8% to 2.9% of GDP;
Modification or replacement of the current FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management) Act with a debt ceiling and fiscal responsibility legislation.
INDIA RANKS BELOW IN R & D
According to the Economic Survey 2014-15, even as the research and development (R&D) sector has been witnessing double-digit growth in the last few years, India ranks lower than most BRICS nations in capacity for innovation
According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15, India’s capacity for innovation has been lower than that of many countries like the U.S., the U.K., South Korea, and even other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) except Russia.
The report ranks India at 48 in capacity for innovation, Brazil at 44, China 40 and South Africa 35. Russia is ranked 66. Even in quality of scientific research institutions, India scores lower than China, Brazil, and South Africa. This is also exhibited through its poor score on university-industry collaboration on R&D as compared to some other BRICS nations like China and South Africa.
v In terms of patents granted per million population India fares badly compared to other BRICS countries. In terms of company spending on R&D also India is far below China.
v Only in terms of availability of scientists and engineers, India scores better or is equal to other BRICS countries.
v The R&D sector in the country grew 20.8 per cent in 2012-13.
SCIENCE & TECH
ROSCOSMOS PLANS ITS OWN SPACE STATION
Once the International Space Station (ISS) is mothballed next decade, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) has planned to build an orbiting outpost and land cosmonauts on the moon. Roscosmos pledged its support for the ISS until 2024 but outlined plans to disconnect its modules soon after, and use them to build a Russian space station in its place.
The creation of a national space station would ensure that Russia has a base to fly cosmonauts to until it has developed its more ambitious plans to send crews on orbiting missions around the moon and land them on its surface by 2030. Since NASA, the U.S. space agency, retired its fleet of space shuttles, Russia has been the only nation able to ferry humans to and from the ISS aboard its Soyuz rockets. Other nations involved in the ISS are yet to give assurances that they will keep funding the
space station beyond 2020. Moscow had threatened to pull out by that point, but the economic crisis, driven by low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, have stymied those plans.
According to Martin Barstow, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, the International Space Station was a focus for everybody and although its life is going to be extended, it’s still going to be limited. The collaborative part of that project may go, and it would be bad if it were lost. The way to avoid fighting is to work together on international significant projects. In the next ten years things could change quite dramatically. Beyond human space exploration, Russia has collaborations with several countries to carry out robotic missions to planets. The European Space Agency is working with Russia on the Exomars Mars rover, which is due to depart for the red planet in 2018.
CERN TO TEST NEW PARTICLE MODEL
According to a new model that is being tested at the particle physics laboratory CERN, the Higgs particle can disintegrate into particles of dark matter. Physicists describe the smallest constituents of nature – elementary particles and forces acting between them using a set of theories known as “the Standard Model”. “
v This model was developed in the 1970s and has been very successful, particularly in predicting the existence of undiscovered particles. The last in the series was the Higgs particle, or the ‘Higgs Boson’, the existence of which was confirmed by the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in 2012.
v This model contains more elementary particles than the Standard Model, including dark matter particles. In addition, the model gives
the Higgs particle different properties than the Standard Model predicts.
v It proposes that the Higgs particle can disintegrate into a photon (a particle of light) and particles of dark matter. However, these properties are quite difficult to discover. Petersson’s model has met with a response at CERN.
v Two independent experimental stations – Atlas and CMS – at the LHC are now looking for the very properties of the Higgs particle his model predicts.
The problem is that there are several things the Standard Model is unable to explain, for example dark matter that makes up a large part of the universe. Many particle physicists are therefore working on developing new, more comprehensive models.
JAPAN CLOCKS TO KEEP TIME FOR 16 BILLION YEAR
Japanese researchers have built a pair of clocks are so accurate they will lose a second only every “Cryogenic optical lattice clocks” which they say 16 billion years longer than the Earth has been around. The research team led by Hidetoshi Katori believes it has taken the technology way beyond the atomic clocks that are currently used to define the “second”. The new clock uses special lasers to trap strontium atoms in tiny grid-like structures, according to the team, which published the study this month in the journal Nature Photonics.
According to the study, it then measures the frequency of the vibration of the atoms, using them like “the atomic pendulum.” The system is so delicate that it must operate in a cold environment, around -180 Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), to reduce the impact of the surrounding electromagnetic waves and to maintain the machine`s accuracy.
Researchers connected the two clocks for a month, and estimated that it would take some 16 billion years for them to develop a one-second gap. That is significantly more accurate than the caesium atom clock, used to define “one second”, which can develop a one second error every 30 million years. The technology could be applied to satellite- based global positioning systems and communications networks, while also serving as a foundation for various precision technologies, the team said in a statement.
EFFECT OF AEROSOL ON TROPICAL RAINFALL
The inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a belt of precipitation caused by the trade winds, which blow from east to west in the north and southern hemispheres near the equator, has been shifting southwards in Central America since 1900, when the industrial revolution and associated atmospheric pollution began in real earnest.
According to a new study, the reason for this shift is the cooling effect of aerosols which produced in large quantities due to industrialisation reflect sun’s heat back into space and work in contrast to green- house gases which trap atmospheric heat and cause global warming. The study was conducted by lead- author Dr. Harriet E. Ridley, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham, Durham, UK and others. The work was published recently in the journal Nature Geoscience.
The researchers analysed a stalagmite found in a cave in Belize (a Central American nation) to construct a record of rainfall patterns in the region over the past 450 years. This site is near the northernmost extent of the ITCZ, a remarkably sensitive location for reconstructing even minor variations in ITCZ position. Cooling of the atmosphere results in less rainfall and dry conditions while warming leads to evaporation, convection and rainfall.
The study found that since 1900 there has been a steady increase in rainfall in the southern tropics, in contrast to a steady decrease in the northern tropics and the ITCZ has shifted southwards in the Central American region. The team measured Carbon -13 (d13C) isotope levels over this period in the various layers of the stalagmite. Carbon isotope serves as a good proxy for rainfall as recorded in the stalagmite over the thousands of years of its formation.
Stalagmites grow incrementally as drops of water seep through the overlying rock. The growth of the stalagmite is therefore linked to the amount of water reaching it, which is in part controlled by rainfall. Furthermore, every drop of water reaching the cave has a unique chemical signature which is controlled by the prevailing climate, most often temperature and rainfall amount.
This chemical signature is then incorporated into the stalagmite layers as it grows. By ‘chemical signature’ in this case, is meant oxygen and carbon isotopes. At the Belize cave site the carbon isotope value of each layer of the stalagmite is controlled by the amount of water dripping onto the stalagmite and therefore the amount of rainfall. As this carbon isotope values change through time one can see how rainfall has changed.
The stalagmite portions were dated by measuring Uranium-Thorium ratios over the past centuries. U-Th dating is based on the radioactive decay of uranium-234 to thorium-230. This decay is part of a much longer decay series. In order to conduct Uranium-Thorium dating, powder samples spread between the top and bottom of the stalagmite were taken.
A key factor in the method is that uranium is soluble in water while the daughter products are non-soluble. This means that uranium is present in water which seeps into limestone caves and is incorporated into stalagmites but it is non-soluble daughter products are not. Daughter isotopes present in the sample increase through time as the uranium decays and the ratio of the uranium to the thorium is measured to provide an age estimate.
ANTARCTICA: KEY TO MANKIND’S FUTURE?
For a dozen days in January, in the middle of the chilly Antarctic summer, scientists from different fields flock the northern peninsula of Antarctica, searching for alien-like creatures, hints of pollution trapped in pristine ancient ice, leftovers from the Big Bang, biological quirks that potentially could lead to better medical treatments, and perhaps most of all, signs of unstoppable melting. Antarctica conjures up images of quiet mountains and white plateaus, but the coldest, driest and remotest continent is far from dormant.
About 98 per cent of it is covered by ice, and that ice is constantly moving. Temperatures can range from above zero in the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula to the unbearable frozen lands near the South Pole. As an active volcano, Deception Island is a pot of extreme conditions. There are spots where the sea boils at 100 degrees Celsius, while in others it can be freezing at below0
degrees Celsius. And while the sun rarely shines on the long, dark Antarctic winters, night-time never seems to fall on summer days. The West Antarctic ice sheet has started melting irreversibly, what happens here will determine if cities such as Miami, New York, New Orleans, Guangzhou, Mumbai, London and Osaka will have to regularly battle flooding from rising seas.
About 4,000 scientists come to Antarctica for research during the summer and 1,000 stay in the more forbidding winter. There are also about 1,000 non-scientists — chefs, divers, mechanics, janitors and the priest of the world’s southernmost Eastern Orthodox Church on top of a rocky hill at the Russian Bellinghausen station. But the church on the hill is an exception, a glimmer of the world to the north. For scientists, this place provides a window into mankind’s past and future.
LLAMAS HOLD THE KEY TO BREAKTHROUGH IN AIDS RESEARCH
Thirty years after AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was discovered, scientists continue to struggle with the disease caused by the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), with current medical solutions only providing symptomatic relief. But, there is hope around the corner. The gentle and endearing South American llamas may hold the clues to a vaccine against HIV.
According to Molecular biologist Robin A Weiss, Llamas and camels are unique in the antibodies they produce, a discovery made in 1993. The usual antibodies that humans or other mammals produce have what are called heavy chains, and light chains. For some reason, llamas and camels make the usual antibodies. But they also make ones that only have heavy chains. And that means those antibodies recognise an antigen, such as the envelope of HIV, in a manner similar to that of other antibodies. Plus, it’s on a very small bit of the protein. The small size of these antibodies allows them to fit into the crevices of different strains of the HIV virus and neutralise them, something naturally produced human antibodies are unable to do. These animal
antibodies can be used as a model to develop a successful vaccine. However, that’s not all. These curious antibodies are also being studied for their potential to block HIV from entering the body through genitalia.
These antibodies are tough little molecules. They can be heated, cooled, change their environment from alkaline to acidic and they still work. For example, if they can be injected as a gel into the subject, they could zap the virus (HIV) and neutralise it. And it really doesn’t matter if the internal environment undergoes a change, as it does during sex. They would still be protected.
According to Weiss, introducing llama antibodies into the human body is possible and would, theoretically, be harmless. Further, hybrid antibodies with a part, derived from llama, that recognises HIV, and the rest from humans has also been made. The research, started nine years ago, has given hope to Weiss, who has been working in the field of AIDS research for over 30 years, in search of a vaccine.
SMART’ SYRINGES TO STEM DEADLY DISEASE
In new guidelines released, the WHO detailed recommendations highlighting the value of safety features for syringes, including devices that protect health workers against accidental injury. The World Health Organization has called on health-care providers around the globe to switch to syringes that can be used only once in order battle deadly diseases that are spread by needle sharing.
According to a 2014 WHO-sponsored study, dangerous injection practices led to the accidental infection worldwide of 1.7 million people with hepatitis B, 3,15,000 with hepatitis C and as many as 33,800 with HIV in 2010.
The new ‘smart’ syringes recommended by the WHO include features that prevent them from being used a second time. Some have a plunger that breaks if someone tries to pull it back out following an injection. Others have metal clips that prevent the plunger from being pulled back after it is used and another type has a needle that retracts into the syringe after a shot. Adoption of safety- engineered syringes is absolutely critical to protecting people worldwide from becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other diseases.
PERSON IN NEWS
Dr Rajendra Pachauri
Dr Rajendra K Pachauri has stepped down as Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), after facing allegations of sexual harassment. Dr. Pachauri is also a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change. He was elected to the first of two terms as Chair of the IPCC in April 2002 and had been scheduled to complete his second term in October.
Elections for a new Bureau, including the IPCC Chair, for the next assessment cycle are already scheduled at the 42nd Session of the IPCC in October 2015. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world body for assessing the science related to climate change. The members of the IPCC, comprising the Panel, are its 195-member governments. Meanwhile, there is outrage among sections of the scientific community as well.
Maldives former president and current opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed has been arrested under anti-terrorism laws. Nasheed was arrested to stand trial for his 2012 order as president to arrest a senior judge.
Nasheed resigned as president in February 2012 following weeks of public protests against his order to arrest criminal court judge Abdulla Mohamed. In 2013, he lost the presidential election to Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, a half-brother of the Indian Ocean archipelago nation’s 30-year autocratic ruler, Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom.
Recently, the political situation in the Maldives has been charged by the decision of President Yameen’s coalition partner, the Jumhoory party to quit the government, and announcement of their plans along with Nasheed’s MDP to call for President Yameen’s resignation with a series of street protests from February 27.
Begum Khaleda Zia
A Bangladesh court issued arrest warrants for former Prime Minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. A special anti-corruption court issued the warrants after declining her lawyers’ plea for more time in two graft cases. Khaleda is accused of embezzling $650,000 in two corruption cases involving charitable funds during her last term as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006. She has failed to appear in court for hearings, citing security concerns.
Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party refused to take part in a general election a year ago. It stepped up protests last month in a bid to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down and hold a new vote under a neutral caretaker administration, in answer to which Hasina refused, instead tightening her grip by arresting key opposition leaders and clamping down on critical media.
Bangladeshi politics has been mired for years in rivalry between Hasina and Khaleda. Both women are related to former national leaders, and they have alternated as prime minister for most of the past two decades.
PERSON IN NEWS
Indian soldiers awarded Victoria Cross
The U.K. will honour the Indian soldiers who fought alongside their British officers during the World War I with special plaques to be unveiled at a war memorial in March. The National Memorial Arboretum at Staffordshire in the West Midlands region of England will honour 11 soldiers from undivided India who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their service alongside a total of 145 overseas-born fighters from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and Canada at a commemorative event on March 5.
The 11 VC winners from undivided India include six from modern day India, three from Pakistan and two from Nepal. Besides Singh, the other five Indian VCs were awarded to RessaidarBadlu Singh, NaikDarwan Singh Negi, Rifleman Gabbar Singh Negi, Lance DaffadarGobind Singh and Lance NaikLala. On the list of medal winners born on the Indian subcontinent during the Raj era also include 11 British soldiers born in India and one born in Pakistan.
A VC is the highest military honour awarded for bravery on the battlefield. A total of 628 VCs were awarded during World War I, of which 145 were awarded to servicemen who fought for Britain but were born overseas.
The first Victoria Cross Paving stones were laid on August 23 last year to mark exactly 100 years to the day that the first VCs were awarded during World War I. The last stones will be laid in November 2018.
Oscar Awards 2015
The 87th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), honored the best films of 2014 and took place on February 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles . During the ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Academy Awards in 24 categories.
The 87th Academy Awards: List of the recipients in full–
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman“Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything
Best Actress: Julianne Moore for Still Alice“Best Picture: Birdman
Best Supporting Actor: JK Simmons for Whiplash“Best Foreign-Language Film: Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski“Best Live-Action Short Film: The Phone Call – Mat Kirkby, James Lucas“Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 – Ellen Goosenberg Kent, Dana Perry“Achievement in Sound Mixing: Whiplash – Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley“Achievement in Sound Editing: American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman“Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood“Best Animated Short Film: Feast – Patrick Osborne, Kristina Reed“Best Animated Feature Film: Big Hero 6“Best Documentary Feature: Graham Moore – The Imitation Game“
Hemis festival @ Ladakh
At the Hemis Monastery, the largest and richest monastery in all of Ladakh, the Hemis festival is celebrated to mark the birthday celebrations of Guru Padamasambhava. During the festival, in full view is a raised platform where a silk cushioned seat and an elaborately hand-painted Tibetan table is placed with many ceremonial items. It’s interesting to see cups of holy water, uncooked rice, incense sticks, biscuits and some figurines made of dough and butter that are offered. Music is an integral part of the ceremony and monks play the four pairs of cymbals, drums, trumpets and large wind instruments. They play the traditional tunes while an assembly of Lamas.
The Hemis Festival is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava venerated as the Dance
Performance at Hemis Monastery representative reincarnate of Buddha. He is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as predicted by the Buddha Shakyamuni. The observance of these sacred rituals is believed to give spiritual strength and good health. The Hemis festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the main door of the monastery.
The most esoteric of festivities are the mystic mask dances. The Mask Dances of Ladakh are referred collectively as chams Performance. Chams performance is essentially a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in those gompas which follow the Tantric Vajrayana teachings and the monks perform tantric worship.
Wildlife museum in Kaziranga
It was recently announced by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that the state government would set-up a state-of-the-art interpretation centre and wildlife museum with modern 3D shows at Kaziranga, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park authorities are also asked to explore possibilities of promoting off-season tourism to the park through the eco-tourism and traditional activities such as weaving handicraft etc. Along with this, an integrated tourism plan will be drawn for Kaziranga and the adjoining areas involving the forest, tourism, cultural affairs departments and the district administration.
Corals feeding on plastic debris
Australian researchers have recently reported that corals in the Great Barrier Reef are eating small plastic debris in the ocean. This has raised fears about the impact the indigestible fragments have on their health and other marine life.
The scientists found that when they placed corals from the reef into plastic-contaminated water, the marine life ate plastic at rates only slightly lower than their normal rate of feeding on marine plankton. Micro-plastic is defined as particles smaller than half a centimetre. The scientists found the plastic deep inside the coral polyp wrapped in digestive tissue, and expressed concern that the substance could then hurt the creature’s ability to digest normal food. They sampled waters near inshore coral reefs in the World Heritage-listed site and found micro-plastics, including polystyrene and polyethylene, in small amounts.
Climate change, poor water quality from land- based run-offs, coastal developments and fishing all threaten the biodiversity site. As much as 88 percent of the open ocean’s surface contains plastic debris, findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year foun