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SPECIAL ARTICLES / ISSUES / TOPICS OF THE HINDU (AUGUST)
Monday, 21 October 2013 10:31


SPECIAL ARTICLES / ISSUES/ TOPICS OF THE HINDU

 

1. JUDGES HAVE TO WATCH THEIR SCORECARD

2. IS THE NEW TB DRUG ALREADY BEING MISUSED?

3. AT WTO, A DEFENDER OF THE SOUTH

4. KEEPING CHILDREN OUT OF LABOUR

5. ACCESS TO THE PRINTED WORD

6. WORLD HERITAGE SITES STATUS SOUGHT FOR 6 RAJASTHAN FORTS, HIMALAYAN PARK

7. BETWEEN MASS HUNGER AND BURSTING GRANARIES

8. CABINET NOD FOR LOANS AT LOW INTEREST FOR WOMEN SELF HELP GROUPS

9. AN ECOSYSTEM TO SAVE, OR SQUANDER

10. ARABIAN SEA: WHY MORE CYCLONES IN SOME YEARS

11. WHY THE FAILURE IN ALMATY IS A BIG DEAL

12. AN ECOSYSTEM TO SAVE, OR SQUANDER

13. SIXTY YEARS OF A DNA WORLD VIEW

14. WHITE BENGAL TIGER ENIGMA SOLVED

15. AN ANGLO-INDIAN INSURANCE POLICY

16. INDO-JAPAN RELATION

17. THE CRUDE REALITY OF OIL PRICES

18. SCHEMES TO RESHAPE

19. CHINA APPROVES ENVIRONMENT ASSESSMENT OF ‘TALLEST DAM’

20. CLINICAL TRIAL DEMONSTRATES EFFICACY OF ROTAVIRUS VACCINE

21. JUDICIAL APPOINTMENTS COMMISSION

22. NORTH POLE DRIFTS EAST DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE

23. ZEBRAFISH: SPERM AHEAD OF EGG TO FORM ANY CELL TYPE

24. FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE UNDER JSY TO INSTITUTIONAL DELIVERIES

25. U.S. CLEARS SHALE GAS EXPORT TO INDIA

26. CASH TRANSFERS ARE BAD FOR FOOD SECURITY

 

JUDGES HAVE TO WATCH THEIR SCORECARD

The Indian Supreme Court is an extraordinarily powerful institution in the world. It can make and unmake laws; it can keep the executive accountable, and seek to ensure the autonomy of institutions. It can rewrite the Constitution the way it wants, through its creative interpretation yet remain largely unaccountable for its omissions and commissions. Its collegium has the responsibility to choose judges to fill its own vacancies, but it sees little merit in adopting an open and transparent process while exercising it.

As a result, very little is known about the merits of a judge, before he or she is appointed to the Supreme Court, unless there are serious allegations damaging to the judge’s integrity. There is a vast pool of post-retirement jobs that awaits a retiring judge from the Supreme Court, in the form of membership of statutory tribunals and commissions, yet there is no mechanism to evaluate the suitability of former judges to these bodies.

• The Government’s proposal to nominate the former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Cyriac Joseph, to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has brought into focus the issue of performance-evaluation of a judge.

• While the members representing the Government on the NHRC selection committee appear to have favoured his nomination, the two members belonging to the Opposition, Ms Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Arun Jaitley, have submitted dissenting notes pointing to an adverse report of an intelligence agency about the unsuitability of the proposed nominee on the basis of his tenure at the Supreme Court.

 

 

IS THE NEW TB

DRUG ALREADY BEING MISUSED?

• Bedaquiline was the first TB drug to be discovered in more than 40 years, and the first one specifically for multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). MDR-TB arises when the M.tuberculosi s bacteria become resistant to two commonly used first-line TB drugs — isoniazid and rifampicin.

• But less than six months after FDA approved the drug under its accelerated approval programme, is the drug a potential candidate for misuse by doctors in India? Will it in any way result in patients developing drug resistance?

• It is too early to say this with any certainty, but the system in India appears to have the perfect conditions to make this possible. The drug is yet to be approved for use in India, and WHO and India have not yet drawn up guidelines to help doctors treat MDR-TB patients with this drug.

• But some private doctors here have already started prescribing this drug to their patients by importing it.

• Though the Drug Controller General of India is responsible for issuing permits for import, it cannot deny permits to doctors if it is to treat patients.

• Already, the prevalence of MDR-TB among new patients is 2-3 per cent. In the case of previously treated patients, the prevalence is 11-17 per cent. Incidence (number of cases detected in a year) of MDR-TB is about 99,000. But these are not a true reflection of MDR-TB incidence/prevalence — MDR-TB patients approaching private doctors are not counted.

“Of this, only a fraction of patients was diagnosed till 2011. From 2012 onwards it started improving,” she says. Between 2,000 and 3,000 MDRTB patients were put on treatment in 2011. In 2012, around 20,000 MDR-TB patients were put on treatment.

AT WTO, A DEFENDER OF THE SOUTH

The World Trade Organization (WTO) received a new leader, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil. The election of Azevêdo is significant not because he is the first person from the Global South to lead the WTO — that honour goes to Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi, who ran it from 2002 to 2005. But unlike Supachai, Azevêdo comes with the backing of significant new blocs of the Global South, notably the BRICS grouping which put its heft behind his candidacy. This is the first time that a candidate of the Global South won against someone backed by the European Union, which in this instance had put its support behind Mexico’s former Trade Minister Herminio Blanco. The BRICS bloc was able to secure sufficient investment in Azevêdo, Brazil’s representative to the WTO since 1997.

Azevêdo is a veteran of Brazil’s Itamaraty, its foreign ministry. A career diplomat, he spent the most mature part of his working life at the WTO where he earned a reputation as being a defender of the Global South against the North’s very focused attempt to use the WTO as an instrument of its interests.

France’s Pascal Lamy led the WTO into the doldrums, as the Doha Development Agenda stalled because of Northern obduracy on its agricultural subsidy regime and Southern reticence to adopt the strict intellectual property framework favoured by the North. No wonder that Azevêdo said last week that the WTO is a “sick patient.”

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said that Azevêdo would work to create a “more dynamic and fair” world economic order. Azevêdo has pledged to work for all countries, but he also said that “members in general are more trusting of a system where they think they can be represented at the top, in   terms of geography and level of development.”

In the halls of the WTO, Azevêdo is known as a fair-minded person who has indeed played a very positive role to defend the rights of the South against the heavy-handed positions taken by the North.

Multilateralism, he says, is in his DNA. If the backing of the BRICS continues, and if Azevêdo is able to move in a multilateral way, a positive agenda might finally emerge from the WTO.

 


KEEPING CHILDREN OUT OF LABOUR

• The economic vulnerabilities that confront households in the current sluggish recovery from the global meltdown are aggravating the fight against child labour, says the International Labour Organisation. Its latest report emphasises the need for universal coverage of at least a minimum level of social security to help some 215 million working children.

• Half that number is trapped in the worst forms of child labour — work akin to slavery, debt bondage, child prostitution and hazardous occupations harmful to health and safety. To be sure, the number of child workers did drop by some 30 million in the last decade.

• But job losses in the adult population in the wake of the global financial crisis and shocks related to crop failure and recurrent freak weather patterns are threatening a reversal of recent gains. The report collates findings from various studies that establish a clear correlation between adverse macroeconomic indicators and the recourse to child labour. Correspondingly, cash transfers are known to prove effective in reducing child labour in Asia and Latin America, subject to supply-side conditions such as the availability of education facilities.

Similarly, in many African countries where parents have been lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, social protection measures such as health insurance, targeted at the elderly, ensure uninterrupted school attendance among children.

• It is abundantly clear then that the elimination of child labour is predicated upon making progress on many fronts. Getting kids to go to school, a key priority that drove the abolition campaign a decade ago, is obviously a necessary but not sufficient condition for the eradication of child labour.

Surely, there has been a surge in enrolments in recent years and there has even been some talk of devising ways to retain wards beyond primary school. But all of this presupposes a sound overall policy framework to be sustained over the long term. A scenario where as much as 75 per cent of the global population (more than 5 billion people) has no access to comprehensive social protection, as per ILO estimates, hardly inspires confidence in the capacity of countries to kick start the lives of millions.

To make headway, governments must be prepared to spend more. A hugely influential 2010 study which claimed that public debt ratios in excess of 90 per cent of gross domestic product would automatically lead to a decline in growth has recently been exposed as relying on erroneous calculations, a fact conceded by its authors. Several governments that have so far persisted with crippling austerity measures to cut back on welfare spending, with severe socio-political ramifications, should reconsider their stance.

 


ACCESS TO THE PRINTED WORD

Talks on a global treaty to give copyright exemptions for the blind and print disabled are inching close to fruition at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), notwithstanding sticky areas in the draft text. The half-a-decade-long negotiations at the relevant standing committee at the world body concluded last month, paving the way for a diplomatic conference in June in Morocco to finetune the law. Deliberations were deadlocked for months on the question of balancing the need to extend cross-border access to reading material with the interests of copyright holders. Developed nations have been lobbying hard for assurances that accessible formats of books were not already in circulation whenever fresh material is transferred to recipient states. Developing countries have legitimate concerns in terms of the practical difficulties that such monitoring — principally by non-government organisations — would entail. It is relevant to note here that many countries already have in place suitable amendments to their domestic copyright laws to address the special needs segment. It is thus a matter of establishing the mechanisms for applying the same principle internationally. Though concerns exist over the potential unauthorised use of copyright exemptions in the developing world, the rights of creators must be weighed against the larger interests of equity and justice. The harsh reality for disabled end-users the world over is that some 95 per cent of published literature today is beyond their reach.

The refusal by western countries, in particular the United States, to move forward on the treaty obviously has to do with concerns over the general lack of protection against piracy in the developing world. But the message from the WIPO talks in Geneva is also that the advanced world can’t ignore the needs of the disabled elsewhere for too long.

With disability likely to figure high among global development priorities post-2015, the availability of accessible information would prove a key determinant of the educational and employment attainments of the disabled. Moreover, it does not stand to reason that while the rights of disabled people for access to the physical environment has acquired wide currency, access to published information and knowledge through accessible formats should continue to be denied.


WORLD HERITAGE SITES STATUS SOUGHT FOR 6 RAJASTHAN FORTS, HIMALAYAN PARK

India has nominated a group of six hill forts in Rajasthan and the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh as candidates for World Heritage Sites this year. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee at its meeting in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh next month will decide on conferring the status on them.

The hill forts at Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Ranthambore, Gagron, Amber, and Jaisalmer are excellent examples of Rajput military architecture, which are found in palaces, temples, memorials and even in villages. Built between 13th and 19th centuries, these forts are unique to this region and creatively use the landscape to increase protection.

The Great Himalayan National Park, spread over 75,400 hectares, is located on the western part of the Himalayan mountains in Kullu District. It is among the most scenic sites in the country and rich in biodiversity. It is home to 25 forest types, supports 805 kinds of plants and hosts 31 species of mammals and 209 sort of birds.

Going by a report of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which evaluates nominations for natural sites, it is unlikely that the World Heritage Committee would inscribe the Himalayan Park as a World Heritage Site. The IUCN) has said the delineation of the park is disjointed. It recommended that the intervening land be added to the park to create a contiguous area. It suggested that the rights of local communities be accommodated and integrated in the management plan.

The five Rajasthan forts were nominated last year too, but UNESCO rejected them. This year, the government added the Jaisalmer fort, reworked the documents and renominated the five. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which evaluates the cultural properties for UNESCO, inspected the sites last year, and their final recommendation will be known on May 17. India has 29 world heritage sites — 23 cultural and six natural properties.


BETWEEN MASS HUNGER AND BURSTING GRANARIES

The hallmark of the National Food Security Bill 2011 is that if implemented it will translate into India’s first ever right to food legislation, guaranteeing food as a justiciable, legal entitlement to its people.

However, in its current form, the Bill fails to evolve a robust understanding of food security — one in which “food” is valued as a basic fact of life, and “security” translates into a life lived with dignity, with individuals as active seekers of their entitlements.

The repeated use of the word “entitlement” in the Bill makes it possible to conceptualise food security as a right. It allows the Government to speak convincingly of an ostensible shift from a welfare based to a rights-based approach. The Bill, however, defines food security as the supply of entitled foodgrains and meal. Such a narrow definition assumes the individual to be a passive recipient of a dole and not a proactive claimant of entitlements.

Moreover, it sharply contrasts with the understanding of “entitlements” advanced by the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC) — a movement that sculpted the passage for the birth of the Food Bill.

The RTFC emerged in 2001 as an outgrowth of the civil writ petition filed in the Supreme Court by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, demanding that the country’s rotting foodgrain stocks be used to prevent mass hunger and acute starvation. The petition emphasised the constitutional basis of the “right to food” flowing from Article 21 that guarantees the fundamental right to life. This petition, also known as the landmark PUCL vs. Union of India or the “right to food” case, is ongoing as a public interest litigation.

More Inclusive

The RTFC places the “right to food” in a wider, more inclusive bed of “entitlements.” Its shared premise is that to address the structural roots of hunger, the “right to food” should be read together with “entitlements” concerning livelihood security, equitable rights over resources such as land, water and forests, sustainable food systems, right to information, education and health care, social inclusion and non-discrimination. Over the years, it has publicly shared and structured this premise through a legal and street advocacy, grassroots engagement and policy advocacy.

In fact, the universalisation of cooked midday meals in schools across India was a direct result of the interim order under the “right to food” case and campaigns around the judgment, steered by the RTFC.

It is against this background of steady advocacy that the Congress, after its re-election in 2009, acted on its electoral promise to legislate the right to food.

The United Progressive Alliance-II tasked the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), headed by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to draft the National Food Security Act.

The Bill tabled in Parliament in 2011 was a whittled down version of a visionary draft prepared by the National Advisory Council. It was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. After a State Food Minister ’s meeting to deliberate the committee’s recommendations in February this year, a revised version of the Bill was cleared by the Cabinet the following month. Amendments to the Bill were introduced in the Lok Sabha on May 2, which now urgently await discussion and passage.

Columnists in economic and business dailies have been quick to dismiss the Bill as a “fiscal nightmare.” The Food Minister, who argues that India can no longer afford to forgo the historic opportunity of enacting a National Food Security Act, justly rubbishes this discourse.

For and against

Briefly, the Bill may be lauded for stipulating formidable reforms to the PDS, maternity entitlements for lactating and pregnant mothers and expanding coverage, respectively, to 75 and 50 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.

Supporters of the Bill, however, are unhappy about the continuation of targeting in PDS, reduction in monthly per capita PDS grain entitlement from 7 kg to 5 kg, omission of the health and preschool education components of ICDS, absence of special entitlements for the most vulnerable sections of the population (persons in destitution or starvation, the elderly, persons with disabilities and single women), proposed introduction of cash transfers and unsatisfactory grievance redress mechanisms, among others. But the bigger concern is that a robust understanding of the “right to food,” premised on hunger has been weakened to mean a passive “right to receive” whatever the state wants to give in the name of food security.

Reframing Food Security

The successive erosion of the essence of the “right to food” through multiple drafts has divorced it from the context of a silent emergency of malnutrition and hunger in which the RTFC first rooted it. This is evident in the absence of the phrase “right to food” from the text of the Bill.

While noteworthy reforms to the PDS have been duly centre-staged, the reference to improvements in agriculture, water and sanitation, health care and decentralised procurement and storage, is only tangential (buried in the last schedule of the Bill). Any framing of food security cannot ignore the moral implications of hunger and must argue for a better understanding of the social, beyond the legal and economic, to arrive at a society unconditioned by the fear of powerlessness that hunger can impose.


CABINET NOD FOR LOANS AT LOW INTEREST FOR WOMEN SELF HELP GROUPS

In order to financially strengthen Women Self Help Groups (SHGs) across India, the Union Cabinet has approved key changes to the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), aiming to eradicate poverty in villages by empowering women. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh announced that over 25 lakh Women SHGs will now be provided bank loans at an interest rate of seven per cent.

In accordance with the announcement made by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in the 2012-13 Budget, the Union Cabinet on May 1 approved the provision of interest subvention for Women SHGs operating under the NRLM, ensuring that they shall avail loans up to Rs. three lakh at an interest rate   of seven per cent per annum.

Initially, the scheme will be started as a pilot project in 150 districts, including the 82 Integrated Action Plan districts affected by naxal violence; and in the rest of the States, 75 per cent of the cost would be borne by the Central government and 25 per cent by the States.

“In 150 districts, all Women SHGs, which are now getting bank loans at 11.5 to 14 per cent rate of interest, will now get it at seven per cent rate of interest,”.


AN ECOSYSTEM TO SAVE, OR SQUANDER

This is a challenging time in India’s development history where a number of tenets of environmental governance are being questioned by the imperative of growth. Environmental governance in India is under assault, and is thus in need of both fresh thinking, and a new focus, based on outcome and results. The Western Ghats are no ordinary ecosystem. They constitute the water tower of peninsular India, providing water to 245 million people and draining a large part of the land surface of India. They are also a treasure trove of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity confers sovereign rights over these elements of biodiversity for which we are a country of origin.

India can play an important role in research relating to such biodiversity elements and claim a share in the commercial profits flowing out of their use. The elements of value not only include medicinal plants and cultivated species of plants and their wild relatives, but seemingly worthless creations such as spider cobwebs, which turn out to be sources of a new kind of silk stronger than steel. Notably enough, such elements of value are by no means confined to natural forests, but occur everywhere across the Western Ghats, underscoring the need to maintain connectivity amongst biodiversity rich habitats.

Hostility

Today, however, it is estimated that only seven per cent of the Ghats’ primary vegetation survives and there are many threatened species, of which 51 are critically endangered species. It was in this context of threats and in response to demands by people of the Western Ghats, that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) was set up in March 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to assess the state of the Ghats and  suggest ways for their “conservation, protection and rejuvenation” through a process of consultations with State governments, industry, and local people.

Post submission of the report in August 2011, its “quarantine” until May 2012, and its subsequent release, the panel presumed that a more detailed public discussion would follow its translation into regional languages, and then finalised. This did not happen. Instead, an adversarial environment emerged or was created, resulting in hostility to the WGEEP report. State governments protested that development will be affected, without a careful reading of what it allows, promotes and seeks to protect. They chose to ignore, as did the MoEF, the tentativeness of the panel’s recommendations, the provisional nature of zone boundaries and sectoral guidelines, to be used for informed and inclusive deliberations, a point made repeatedly but which continues to be misrepresented. However, instead of there being a larger debate around the WGEEP report, the Ministry chose to appoint a High Level Working Group (HLWG) whose mandate it was to examine the WGEEP report “in a holistic and multidisciplinary fashion.”

We would like to comment on three aspects of this examination: (i) the process followed, (ii) analytical approach adopted, and (iii) recommendations made.

The Process

The stakeholder comments received by the MoEF (1,750 in a population of 50 million in the Working Group States) should have been shared with the panel. Instead, secrecy followed — inexplicable, given that the WGEEP was an MoEF appointed panel, not a fly-by-night operator as seen in the mining regions of the Ghats. The MoEF also summarily rejected the panel’s plea that any decision in the matter should be made only after the report is made available to people in regional languages and their feedback obtained. The HLWG’s examination of the WGEEP report ought surely to have commenced with a dialogue with the panel. This was not done, but for a meeting with the chairperson and some of the members, very late in the game. Instead, the   HLWG had a limited consultative process and finalised the recommendations and submitted its report, without sharing this with the Gadgil Panel, suggesting that the intention was not to make the WGEEP recommendations “implementable,” but really to replace it by an alternative framework.

Analytical Approach

The approach adopted for the examination combined a selective review of development issues in the WGEEP report with its own reasoning that insufficiently regarded the Western Ghats as an ecosystem from the perspective of “conservation, protection and rejuvenation.” An ecosystem such as the Western Ghats comprises both people and the ecology, and hence WGEEP carried out its mandate using a social-ecological lens. It is misleading then to suggest that the WGEEP did not have local people or the state’s development needs in mind in arriving at its recommendations. What WGEEP did was mainstream into development planning for the districts of the Western Ghats the more long-term needs of the people such as water and ecosystem services.

With this in mind, it suggested not just the graded regulation of the more ecologically harmful activities, but the promotion of more benign, job creating activities, for example, agro and biomass based industry, regulated ecotourism, industries and services that involve dematerialisation, education hubs, etc. In energy provisioning, it recommended clean energy, “smart” demand side management campaigns, and more equitable distribution policies.

 


ARABIAN SEA: WHY MORE CYCLONES IN SOME YEARS

It is a well-known climatological fact that during pre-monsoon and post-monsoon seasons in the North Indian Ocean, more cyclones form in the Bay of Bengal compared with the Arabian Sea.

Scientists have now discovered why in some years more cyclones form in the Arabian Sea than usual. This is due to a newly discovered Phenomenon (2007) El Nino Modoki — which causes warm moist conditions in the Central Pacific and dry cold conditions in Eastern and western pacific. A more familiar phenomenon, El Nino, was found to suppress cyclone formation in the Arabian Sea.

The findings are results of a study undertaken by a team led by Dr. M.R. Ramesh Kumar, Senior Scientist, National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. The study has been published in the Natural Hazards journal.

The reason why El Nino Modoki brings only fewer number of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal is because one of the two descending limbs of the Walker Cell is over the western Pacific and Bay of Bengal. The descending limb causes dry conditions not conducive for cyclone formation. The ascending limb of the Walker Cell, on the other hand, brings rain.

Also, an El Nino Modoki creates stronger divergence over the western Pacific and Bay of Bengal compared to El Nino. Divergence (opposite of  convergence) means surface winds move away from each other and result in low relative vorticity (rotational flow of winds). These conditions are not conducive for cyclones. This explains why Bay of Bengal region (close to western Pacific) has fewer cyclones during an El Nino Modoki.

On the other hand, there is large convergence over the Arabian Sea during an El Nino Modoki explaining the large number of cyclones in that region. A statistical analysis of the El Nino and El Nino Modoki years between 1979-2004 was conducted. It was found that there were four El Nino years and seven El Nino Modoki years during this period.

The number of cyclones per year show significant differences indicating that El Nino Modoki years are conducive for cyclone formation over Arabian Sea while El Nino is conducive for cyclones over the Bay of Bengal.

 


WHY THE FAILURE IN ALMATY IS A BIG DEAL

The most recent round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 were, by any meaningful measure, a failure. Even as she sought to put the best face possible on the non-outcome in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton had to acknowledge that western members of the P5+1 and Iran “remain far apart on substance.”

Western officials blame the failure either on the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential election or on that old fallback, Iranian “intransigence.” In reality, talks failed because America and its western partners remain unwilling to recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.

U.S. Strategic Culture

As a sovereign state, Iran is entitled to enrich, if it chooses; as a party to the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is entitled to do so under safeguards. The NPT explicitly recognizes signatories’ “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. That this inalienable right includes the right to enrich is clear from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with at least a dozen non weapons state parties having developed safeguarded fuel-cycle infrastructures potentially able to support weapons programmes.

If Washington recognised Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks. As long as Washington refuses to acknowledge Tehran’s nuclear rights, no substantial agreement will be possible.

Yet the Obama administration is no closer than its processor to accepting safeguarded enrichment in Iran. This is partly due to pressure from various allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France — and their American supporters, who expect Washington somehow to defy legal principle along with political reality and compel Tehran to surrender its indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.

But the real reason for U.S. obstinacy is that recognising Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. No American administration since the Iranian Revolution — not even that of Barack Hussein Obama — has been willing to do this.

Washington’s unwillingness is grounded in some unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty in coming to terms with independent power centres (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.- backed norms, legal rules, and transnational decision making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.

Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely that Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends. And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on.

 


SIXTY YEARS OF A DNA WORLD VIEW

Over the last week, there have been several articles celebrating the passage of 60 years since James Watson and Francis Crick published their paper in Nature describing the double helical structure of the DNA molecule. It unleashed a genomic worldview and led to the central dogma of genetics and biology, the linear flow of cellular information from DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) to RNA (ribonucleic acid) to protein within cells, which seemed elegant in its simplicity, captured the imagination of many and is by now enshrined in science. Ever since, largely through miscommunication by many parties, “there is a gene for condition xyz” has been taken to mean, “the gene causes xyz and the gene alone causes it.”  This idea has trapped the general thinking on genetics in numerous ways, building an edifice for a molecule that supposedly unzips all by itself, self- replicates, has the blueprint for all the components of a single cell and organism, causes all diseases and defines all characteristics. Its power and hold are strong also because the idea and its implications fit like a glove within culturally inscribed, fatalistic beliefs of all hues and shades in different societies.

The strength of this acceptance is so extreme that these days it is quite normal to hear people refer to some of the deeply engrained practices within an organisation, in a business, or even in a community, having nothing to do with genes, as being “in their DNA.” Nevertheless, this popular notion of DNA being the central and the only player in cellular and genetic information is quite flawed and scientists have known this for a long time even as new evidence continues to mount opposing the perception of DNA as the master molecule. It is also no longer a simplistic genes vs environment argument, nor do genes provide a map or blueprint that is merely set off one way or another or slightly modified by the environment; indeed “what is a gene?” is a hotly debated and unsettled question in science.

China’s First ‘Blue Book’ on India Sees a Govt. in ‘Serious Crisis’ The first ever ‘blue book’ on India released in China by a prominent official Beijing publisher has portrayed a government in “serious crisis,” but expressed the belief that India would likely emerge as a stronger country by conquering its current obstacles.

Chinese think tanks release ‘blue books’ every year on a number of issues. While not representing the government’s view, the books are put together by official think tanks and the projects are understood to be given tacit backing by the government.

The first ever blue book on India was released by the Social Sciences Academy Press, detailing political, economic, foreign policy and defence issues for the year 2011-12. The book runs into more than 300 pages, and was compiled by Yunnan University, which has one of China’s biggest South Asia programmes.

According to a brief summary, the book sees India as weighed down by a number of crises — particularly corruption scandals — but also details India’s rising military strength, which it sees as being partly directed at China. It ultimately expresses the optimistic view that India would emerge stronger from the current period of difficulty. “The Chinese saying which says ‘many difficulties can make a country prosperous’ reflects India’s problems and hope,”  the book concludes. The book, however, sees India today as a country beset with numerous challenges, saying the current Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was facing its most serious crisis since it came to power in 2009.

It pointed to frequent corruption scandals, divisions within the UPA and public anger at the economic situation as leaving Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government with a tarnished image amid declining public trust. It saw the year 2011-12, which the report covers, as among the worst since India’s “remarkable achievements” after reforms in 1991. The book estimates that by 2030, India’s population will exceed that of China’s.

On the foreign policy front, the blue book notes that India has focused on boosting relations with its neighbours in South Asia, pushed forward peace with Pakistan and developed strategic relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal — countries with which China has also recently deepened economic ties.

It sees the United States “pivot” to Asia and strengthening of alliances in the region — viewed by most analysts in China as being directed to “contain” Beijing — as accelerating India’s “Look East” policy, observing that India’s defence cooperation with the U.S., Japan, Vietnam and Australia has warmed.

WHITE BENGAL TIGER ENIGMA SOLVED

A change in a single amino acid (A477V) in one pigmentation-related gene (SLC45A2) causes some tigers to have white fur with dark or sepia brown stripes, scientists from Peking University, Beijing, have found. They studied 16 captive white tigers from three parents. The results were published on Thursday in the Current Biology journal.

The colour of the fur, stripes and eye of the tiger is determined independently by two types of melanin — pheomelanin and eumelanin. In the case of white tigers, only the pheomelanin that produces the red to yellow colour is affected. Eumelanin gives the black to brown colour and is unaffected, the reason why the eye and hair in the stripes are dark or sepia brown.

The scientists found that the point mutation in the amino acid partially blocks a particular channel, as a result of which the yellow pigment-forming  process gets affected. Incidentally, mutations in the same pigmentation-related gene (SLC45A2) causes light skin colour in modern Europeans, as well. Mutations in the same gene causes skin lightening in some mouse, horse, and chicken, the scientists point out. The point mutation has “evolved only once and its frequency is probably never high,” they write.

Though white tigers were found in the wild once, their decline was probably due to mindless killing by humans. The last known white tiger was killed in 1958, they note.

To maintain and increase the number of white tigers in zoos, humans often force them to inbreed. But inbreeding, as seen in the case of humans, causes many health problems. In the case of white tigers, the human-induced inbreeding has resulted in “premature death, stillbirth and deformities.”   Since the mutation affects only the pigmentation process, it probably has no role in causing deaths.

AN ANGLO-INDIAN INSURANCE POLICY

Through the waxing and waning of the Anglo- Indian community, demographically and economically, there has been one constant factor in their story, post-Independence: the constitutional provisions granting nomination to two members from among them to the Lok Sabha and one to the Vidhan Sabha in the States where they have a presence. These two provisions were expected to allay their insecurities following the end of British rule, and, hopefully, stem their exodus from India.

However, over the passage of six decades since the Constitution was adopted, the two provisions (Article 331 and Article 333) governing nomination have increasingly become devices for bolstering wafer-thin majorities in legislatures, besides smacking of partisanship. Worse, the application of these provisions has an unmistakable, undemocratic ring to it, in the absence of institutional mechanisms to secure the community’s consent for the nominees.

Therefore, isn’t it time to revisit Article 331 and Article 333, which had been initially envisaged to operate for only 10 years?

Provisions

The rationale behind the nomination was linked to the minuscule population of Anglo-Indians, and the imminent rollback of the preferential treatment accorded to them under British rule. In the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Hukam Singh suggested that the President should nominate two members from any minority community — not just Anglo-Indian — which he felt had not been adequately represented in the Lok Sabha.

Ananthasayanam Ayyangar countered Singh, arguing that the other minorities, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, were not as few as Anglo-Indians and would not go unrepresented in the Lok Sabha. He said their population was not even “five lakhs for the whole of India. You cannot point out to any constituency where they will be in a majority.” The Anglo-Indians were a special case among all minorities because, Ayyangar felt, “they were once part rulers of this country and therefore they should be shown some partiality for some time to come.” Ultimately, Ayyangar’s argument prevailed.

Though nomination for Anglo-Indians has been extended every 10 years, by amending Article 334 (b), the constitutional provisions providing special treatment to them in certain sectors were allowed to lapse. For instance, Article 336 provided for reservation for Anglo-Indians in railways, customs, postal and telegraph services on the same basis as it had existed before 1947 for the first two years of the Constitution coming into operation; but the quantum of posts was to be reduced every two years and phased out at the end of the tenth year.

Similarly, following more or less the same formula, Article 337 providing special educational grants to the community, as it had existed before 1947, was   to end in 1960.

Census

Yet, all these privileges did not slow the exodus of the community from the country. For one, the migration of Anglo-Indians, as several academic papers bear out, arose from the issue of identity: many of them perceived themselves to be culturally closer to the British than to Indians, and considered “England” as their home.

The Census data of 1941 pitches their population in undivided India at 1,40,422, a figure thrown up through a survey conducted inadequately because of war efforts consuming the colonial government’s energies. It is generally agreed they were approximately five lakhs in 1947, and because of the unabated migration, their population today is said to be between one and 1{+1}/{-2}lakhs.

In a reversal of the earlier policy, Census 2011 is now required to furnish the socio-economic and caste profile of India. Consequently, we should soon know their population figures. Should it hover around, say, one or even two lakhs, is there not a case, rooted in the logic of democracy, for reducing the  number of nominated members in the Lok Sabha by at least one, if not annulling these provisions altogether at the Centre and in the States?

Not only is the efficacy of this privilege debatable, Anglo-Indians today are more integrated in society than they were in 1950.

 


INDO-JAPAN RELATION

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan holds out the hope that the two countries have turned the corner of a somewhat underperforming relationship. An agreement towards a civilian nuclear deal still looks some distance away. But the decision by the Prime Minister and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to “accelerate” negotiations towards this, though below New Delhi’s expectations for a definite timeline, shows Tokyo remains interested despite domestic public opposition to nuclear energy and its export, especially to a non-signatory of the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. Japan’s commercial motivations are quite obvious. Component vendors like Toshiba, Mitsubishi and Hitachi are keen to find new markets abroad after Japan’s own decision to drastically cut its reliance on nuclear energy in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Both sides have also agreed to set up a joint working group to discuss modalities for the sale to India of the US-2 amphibian aircraft, which is being used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, as its navy is called. This is the first time Japan is reconsidering its post-World War II self-imposed ban on the sale of defence equipment to another country, though the plan could well be to sell it to India as a civilian aircraft. The two Prime Ministers were appreciative of the expanding defence relations between the two countries. The Indian Navy and the JMSDF held their first bilateral exercise off the coast of Japan last year. These exercises are to become a regular feature. The strategic dialogue between the two countries includes a regular exchange between the defence ministers of both countries, a “two plus two” dialogue involving the foreign and defence secretaries of both countries, a dialogue specifically on maritime security, besides a U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue. While both sides are keen to lift their relations to the next level, New Delhi needs to guard against allowing ties with Japan to get

underpinned by the shared wariness of Beijing. There is nothing to be gained for India, Japan or China in a polarised Asia. Tokyo has been large-hearted in its infrastructure development assistance to India, which it has now promised to expand. But despite the two sides talking up their “natural” partnership and their synergies, India’s trade with Japan is at a measly $17.5 billion, and the 2011 Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement has not yet delivered its promise of trade in goods and services. This aspect of the relationship — rather than the purely ‘strategic’ pivot that certain lobbies in both countries are promoting — needs much more attention than it is getting now.

 


THE CRUDE REALITY OF OIL PRICES

The bankers have finally got their revenge. Oil traders claim that influential bankers, furious that their sector has been squeezed by regulators since the 2008 crash, have persuaded Brussels that oil traders should no longer be able to operate without the same rigorous rules. According to the bankers, oil traders behave worse than money brokers. And so the Eurocrats raided the offices of BP, Shell and Platts, comparing their investigation into oil price-rigging with the one into the bankers’ Libor scandal. By focusing on Platts, an unusual reporting agency whose methods to discover the price of oil often provoke accusations of dishonesty, the Eurocrats have won public sympathy and the gratitude of those banks who host massive oil—trading operations.

Over the past century, the repeated charge is that oil prices have been rigged by oil traders, refiners or producers. At its simplest, traders are alleged to either flood or squeeze markets to fix prices to grab a quick profit. Undoubtedly some traders have been dishonest, and U.S. regulators have charged a handful of traders for manipulation. But their alleged crimes were short-lived and simple to detect. The current suggestion that BP, Shell and Platts have been conspiring for 10 years to manipulate oil prices — possibly the Brent market in the North Sea — is mind-boggling.

Dynamics of Pricing

Setting the price of oil is fiendishly complicated. Unlike the price of gold or BP shares, oil’s value is not fixed in one open stock market. Crude oil is not  only traded on regulated markets in New York and London but also around the clock in thousands of opaque markets. Like wine and cheese, the quality  and value of crude oil varies significantly, and this is reflected in its price, as are many other factors. The difference in price also depends on the distance between the oilfields and refineries in three locations: Oklahoma, the North Sea and Dubai, as well as other factors such as whether the oil is for immediate delivery or in the future. Every day, tens of thousands of anonymous traders across the globe are secretly agreeing prices worth trillions of dollars. A market can only work if traders, including their dishonest brethren, know what prices their competitors have agreed. Since 1909, traders have increasingly relied on Platts, owned by McGraw-Hill, the U.S. publishers.

Platts reporters call hundreds of producers and traders every day to discover their purchase and selling prices. Unscrupulous traders lie to manipulate the market, but even the best manipulator can only fool the market for a couple of days yet often takes advantage of an incompetent Platts reporter.  Some of the most aggressive traders suspected of speculation are global commodity trading giants who are beyond the Eurocrats’ reach. And so the bankers are angry.

Speculation

In a world of squeezes and deception, bankers’ oil-trading has shifted the balance. Over the last 20 years, Morgan Stanley’s sophisticated trading has become colossal speculation. Markets have witnessed huge crashes following crazy speculation to manipulate the oil market. But while U.S.

investigators have repeatedly accused honest speculators of causing phoney price increases, they have also failed to find convincing evidence of a conspiracy. After Morgan Stanley’s traders suffered huge losses in 2008, Platts declared its price reporting was unacceptable. The bank protested that  there was no evidence of wrongdoing but to its distress was excluded by Platts from the system for a period. Now bankers protest that oil traders and Platts should be regulated like them.

The Platts system is imperfect, but no alternative has been found. Whatever transgressions the Eurocrats might discover are inconsequential compared to the world’s mammoth price-fixer, OPEC.

Every day, the oil producers who claim to control about 80 per cent of the world’s oil restrict their production to keep prices artificially high. This group is too powerful to challenge. No one in Washington or Brussels can order the Saudis or Venezuelans to produce more oil or charge a fair price. Instead,  Saudi officials in Dhahran unilaterally impose the highest price they can extract. Stymied by OPEC, the Eurocrats have gone for smaller fish. Like the U.S. regulators, they will at best emerge from the treacle with a minnow.

 


SCHEMES TO RESHAPE

Abewildering and endless variety of programmes with fancy names populate the annals of governance today. While the special focus that Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) thus bring to sectors that need extra attention has often proved to be an advantage, poor design and implementation with little other than fancy nomenclature and grand announcements to prop them up, have often proved to be a disadvantage. The ‘branding’ exercise has  not always served the cause. Some of the schemes have been plagued by overlaps, duplication and bureaucratic mismanagement and negligence that impinge on efficiencies and lead to wastage. A Group of Ministers has now approved the restructuring of CSSs, merging some 170 of them into 79, in  order to ensure better implementation and monitoring. At the end of the 11th Plan, in March 2012, there were 173 CSSs and Additional Central Assistance (ACA) schemes. Hopefully, as the matter comes up before the Cabinet again, competing, even conflicting, interests among different ministries would not come in the way of making the final push on this key issue — although the pruning will still not meet the 2011 recommendations of the B.K. Chaturvedi Committee to bring the number down to 59.

While the share of CSSs in gross budgetary allocations has gone up significantly over the last three Plans, the number of such schemes has come down. Yet, CSSs tend to pre-empt resources available to States, given that fund packages often get channelled directly for the programmes, sometimes without the tailored flexibility that is needed to optimise utilisation. In some instances, funds are transferred to district-level bodies, bypassing State governments. Understandably, several States have complained about the rationale and implementation of CSSs. The system of flexi-funds that has now been proposed, under which State governments can use 20 per cent (10 per cent in case of flagship schemes) of the budget allocated for CSSs, within the broader framework of given programmes, should address part of that problem. The GoM has favoured a system of transferring funds from the Centre to State consolidated funds, rather than directly to implementing agencies.

It has also approved the setting up of State specific guidelines for each CSS. Hopefully, the new and improved package will prove to be a more effective, flexible and efficient instrument to translate Plan objectives into actions. Meanwhile, there is a case to tighten monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, with each CSS being reviewed at least once in two years, with an eye on better outcomes and impact.

 


CHINA APPROVES ENVIRONMENT ASSESSMENT OF ‘TALLEST DAM’

Chinese authorities have granted approval for an environmental assessment of a controversial 2 GW dam project — slated to be the country’s tallest dam — despite concerns voiced by a number of environmental groups.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection this week said it had approved a year-long assessment of the Shuangjiangkou project on the Dadu river in the southwestern Sichuan province. Even as it gave the go-ahead, the Ministry acknowledged the project would “affect the spawning and movement of rare fish species, as well as the growth of endangered plants, including the Chinese yew, which is under first-class state protection”.The Ministry reasoned that countermeasures would help mitigate the impact. It called for protecting fish habitats and constructing seed banks for rare plants but did not say how it would enforce those measures.

The Shuangjiangkou dam will have an installed capacity of 2 GW and will generate 7.93 billion kilowatt-hours of power annually, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The project will cost $4 billion. At 314 metres, it will be China’s tallest dam, surpassing the nearly 300-metre-tall Xiaowan dam on the Mekong river. The Shuangjiangkou dam will tower over the 180-metre-tall Three Gorges dam.

The green light for the dam follows recent approval granted to other controversial dam projects on the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Tsangpo as it is known in Tibet, and the Nu river in Yunnan. The projects were listed in a new energy plan for 2011-15 announced in January, which included three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo.

Disappointment

Environmental groups have expressed disappointment over the moves. Green groups were encouraged by the government stepping in to stop projects in 2009 and 2010 over environmental concerns. The new energy plan, however, has been seen as reflecting a shift in the government’s stand, activists say.

The Shuangjiangkou dam, groups say, will not only adversely impact downstream flows but also submerge parts of at least six nature reserves. “The chemical, thermal and physical changes that flowing water undergoes, when it is stilled, can seriously contaminate a reservoir or river downstream,” warned Liu Shukun, a professor at China Water Resources and Hydropower Institute, in an interview with China Daily.

While the public has until May 17 to put forward its views on the assessment, groups say inputs from the public have carried little weight in past projects. Hydropower groups are said to have close ties with local governments. “Any project that poses such huge potential risk should only be completed with public approval,” Yang Yong, a geologist with the independent Hengduan Mountain Research Society, told China Daily.  “It’s important to let the public know how construction decisions are made.”

CLINICAL TRIAL DEMONSTRATES EFFICACY OF ROTAVIRUS VACCINE

The Phase-III clinical trial of low cost Indian made rotavirus vaccine Rotavac has demonstrated strong efficacy and excellent safety profile and if approved by the Drugs Controller General of India, it would be available at Rs. 54 per dose.

This vaccine, developed under a public-private partnership, will be the third to hit the Indian market, but will be more affordable than the two vaccines now available costing more than Rs. 1,000 per dose. The clinical study has demonstrated for the first time that Rotavac is efficacious in preventing severe rotavirus diarrhoea in low-resource settings in India, and developing countries in Asia and Africa. Strain diversity, too, has not apparently affected its efficacy.

Rotavirus is responsible for approximately 4,53,000 child deaths due to diarrhoea globally each year. It is particularly threatening in India where — according to a recent study — around 1,00,000 children die each year from severe diarrhoea and dehydration caused by rotavirus. India accounts for 22 per cent of the estimated global deaths from diarrhoea-causing rotavirus. Rotavac is an oral vaccine and is administered to infants in a three-dose course at the ages of 6, 10 and 14 weeks. It is given alongside routine immunisations in the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) vaccines recommended at these ages.

“Once sanitation and drinking water supply in the country improves, the efficacy of the vaccine is bound to go up. Rotavirus is also associated with gut infection and the vaccine is known to give ‘herd immunity.’ Even if 25 per cent infection is prevented, it will mean a substantial public health gain,” said M.K. Bhan, former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology.

“This is an important scientific breakthrough against rotavirus infections. Clinical results indicate that the vaccine, if licensed, could save the lives of thousands of children each year in India,” K. Vijay Raghavan, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, said.

The randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled phase-III clinical trial enrolled 6,799 infants in India (aged six to seven weeks at the time of enrolment) at three sites — the Centre for Health Research and Development, Society for Applied Sciences, in New Delhi; Shirdi Sai Baba Rural Hospital, KEM Hospital Research centre in Vadu; and Christian Medical College in Vellore. Infants received Rotavac and the UIP vaccines, including the oral polio vaccine (OPV).

Result showed that infants receiving OPV at the same time as Rotavac generated comparable immune responses to all three polio serotypes as the infants receiving OPV without Rotavac, supporting the concurrent administration of OPV and Rotavac.


JUDICIAL APPOINTMENTS COMMISSION

The appointment of judges to the Constitutional Courts is presently done by the collegium of judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court. The controversies surrounding the proposed appointment of Justice P.D. Dinakaran, and the impeachment of Justice Soumitra Sen show that this system of appointment has surely failed. Recent political consensus also appears to be against the collegiate system of appointment of judges, and in favour of it being replaced by a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC).

It would however be naïve to believe that the mere setting up of a JAC, without anything more, can be the solution to the present problems plaguing the appointment of judges. The Ministry must identify transparent and well-defined criterion based on which the JAC would function and exercise its powers. It is also important to note that the setting up of a JAC cannot be done through legislation alone. The collegiate system of appointment of judges was instituted by the judgments of the Supreme Court in the three Judges cases; and to set up a JAC and in effect reverse the holding in that decision, it is imperative to “remove the foundation or the basis” on which the judgment was passed. Since the Judges cases have rendered the word “consultation” (with the judges) in Articles 124 and 217 of the Constitution to mean a virtual “concurrence,” it would be essential to pass a constitutional amendment to amend the text of those Articles, lest the validity of the JAC be open to challenge on this ground. The UPA government does not have the numbers to pass such an amendment by itself; and it would require a consensus of parties across the political spectrum to do so.

Pendency of Cases

The Indian judicial system is overworked, understaffed and bursting at the seams. Pendency of cases in the High Courts and the Supreme Court is at an all-time high. Many have argued that the solution to this is to increase the number of judges — we have approximately 11 judges per million persons, as opposed to the global average of around 50 judges per million. However, the judge-population ratio is, strictly speaking, irrelevant to understand the issue of pendency. What is relevant is the judge-pendency ratio, the impact of which has sadly not been examined in policy debates. More importantly, an empirical study conducted in 2010 (Kannan) revealed that the problem with the working of the judicial system lies elsewhere. It concluded that (assuming no fresh cases are filed) it would take approximately nine months to clear the entire backlog of cases in Tamil Nadu.

Most States in India had somewhat similar figures, and only a few needed more than two to three years to clear their entire backlog. These numbers demonstrate that the problem of pendency is not insurmountable, and the answers to streamlining the working of the judicial system are not to be found in resolving pendency by increasing the number of judges. They lie elsewhere.

National Litigation Policy

The trouble with the working of the judiciary can be traced to the existing institutional structure. Most cases in the courts are fought by or against the state or its agencies, and serious efforts must be made to transform the government into an efficient and responsible litigant. A well-drafted National Litigation Policy was mooted under the aegis of Veerappa Moily in 2010, but remains largely unimplemented. Similarly, provisions for imposition of actual costs on litigants would reduce frivolous law suits, and cut down on unnecessary adjournments. The executive, the legislature and the judiciary need to work together to implement these institutional changes, and the lead must be taken by the Law Minister.

The law officers of the government, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General and the Additional Solicitor Generals, do not merely serve their clients, but owe an important duty to the court and perform critical constitutional functions. The Constitution in Article 76, in fact, enjoins the President to appoint “a person who is qualified to be appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court” to be the Attorney General. In the recent past, several law officers appointed under the UPA government have compromised the dignity of their office while the upright ones have preferred to quit.

 


NORTH POLE DRIFTS EAST DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Around 2005, accelerated melting of polar ice sheet and mountain glaciers, together with rising sea level, caused the North Pole to drift towards east, marking an “abrupt departure” from the direction recorded over the past century. Accelerated rates of ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica have been observed since 2005-2006 and thus coincide with the abrupt change in polar shift.

The melting ice has also increased the rate of drift from about two million seconds (MAS) per year during the period 1982-2005 to about nine MAS per year post 2005, a study published recently in the journal states.

The changes were recorded by satellite gravity measurements by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, jointly sponsored by U.S. and Germany.

GRACE provides monthly gravity field data that correlates with mass changes for the entire Earth, and from this, it is possible to extract the precise contributions from individual sources. This information helped the scientists in pinning down the cause of abrupt pole drift in 2005 to “variations in climate system”.

Atmospheric and terrestrial water storage changes have made only a “minor” contribution to the shift in Pole direction and rate. The researchers from the University of Texas at Austin consider this study as a reaffirmation of the increased ice melting at poles and mountain glaciers in recent years. This is borne from the fact that mass movement in solid earth takes place over long time scales. Since earth monitoring using satellites has begun only during the last few years, there is no way of knowing the rate and amount of ice-sheet melting in the past. However, data on polar motion is available, thus making it possible to extrapolate the polar ice-sheet melting in the past.

 


ZEBRAFISH: SPERM AHEAD OF EGG TO FORM ANY CELL TYPE

All multicellular organisms originate from the fusion of a male and a female gamete cell, for example, the sperm and the egg cell. This results in the formation of a zygote which contains DNA from both gametes. The zygote is special because this single cell is capable of developing into an embryo and ultimately an entire organism, unlike an already differentiated cell like a skin cell which can only develop into skin tissue. This property of the zygote is called ‘totipotency’.

Whether the gametes’ DNA is already prepared for totipotency at fertilisation or whether it needs to be reprogrammed to enable the zygote’s totipotency, is a question crucial to developmental biology.

Scientists from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah have some answers. They analysed the DNA methylation patterns of sperm cells, egg cells, three stages of embryo cells before its genome is active, and one stage after it is active. When methyl groups attach to certain areas of DNA, gene activity in those areas gets “turned off”.

Studying the DNA methylation pattern of an undifferentiated cell (the embryo cell), and comparing it with the pattern of a differentiated cell (the egg cell and the sperm cell) can tell us which genes need to be activated to make a cell totipotent.

Zebrafish was chosen for this study as it is an ideal organism: it generates a large number of egg cells and there is a longer gap before the zygote is activated. Zygotic genome activation (ZGA) is the point of transition from maternal to embryonic control of development. Second, ZGA occurs at approximately the 2-cell stage in mice, and the 4- to 8-cell stage in humans, compared with the 1,000-cell stage (about 3 hours post-fertilisation) in   zebrafish.

This gives scientists more time to examine the process of ZGA in zebrafish than in its mammalian counterparts. The results were unexpected — the sperm cell’s methylation pattern matched that of the active embryo cell, while the egg cell needed to be reprogrammed before it reached this state. This means that at fertilisation, the DNA from the sperm is more “poised” for development than that of the egg cell.

 


AGE LIMIT RELAXED FOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE UNDER JSY TO INSTITUTIONAL DELIVERIES

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has relaxed eligibility parameters for the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), which provides financial assistance to mothers for institutional deliveries. Now, Below Poverty Line (BPL) women can access JSY benefits irrespective of their age and number of children.

All women from BPL category, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in all States and Union Territories will be eligible for JSY benefits if they have given birth in a government or private accredited health facility. BPL women who prefer to deliver at home can also get JSY benefits.

Launched in 2005, the JSY is the government’s main scheme to enable women — especially those from vulnerable sections — to access institutional delivery. This was done to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality. The highest maternal mortality is reported among girls aged 14-15; the majority of these were out of the purview of the JSY as they were unable to produce proof of age or verify the number of children they had. Till now, the scheme provided assistance for institutional delivery to all pregnant women who give birth in a government or private accredited health facility in Low Performing States (those with bad health indicators, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Assam). A woman gets Rs.1,400 for delivery in a government facility or accredited private facility and Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) gets Rs. 600 in rural areas. In the urban areas, the amounts paid are Rs.1,000 and Rs. 400 respectively. However, in High Performing States (those with good health indices, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), assistance for institutional delivery was available to women from BPL/SC/ST households, aged 19 or above and  only up to two live births for delivery in a government or private accredited health facility. The financial entitlement was Rs. 700 to the mother and Rs.   600 for the ASHA in rural areas and Rs. 600 and Rs. 400 in urban settings.

Further, in all States/Union Territories, the scheme provided Rs. 500 to BPL women — aged 19 or above and who deliver up to two live births — who prefer to deliver at home. With the amendments, all women who deliver at home will be entitled to this amount, basically for nutrition. The government claims that as a result of the scheme, there has been an increase in institutional deliveries — from 47 per cent in 2007-08 to 72.9 per cent in 2009 (Coverage Evaluation Survey) and, most recently, to approximately 79 per cent — as per Health Ministry data.


U.S. CLEARS SHALE GAS EXPORT TO INDIA

Opening up the prospects of export of shale gas to energy-starved India, the U.S. has granted conditional authorisation to export domestically produced liquefied natural gas (LNG) to countries that do not have a free trade agreement (FTA) with it.

In a decision, which has major implications for India, the Department of Energy (DoE), on Friday, announced that it had conditionally authorized Freeport LNG Expansion, LP and FLNG Liquefaction, LLC (Freeport) to export domestically-produced LNG to non-FTA countries from the Freeport Terminal on Quintana Island in Texas.

Given that the companies from countries such as China, Japan and Britain have already an overwhelming stake in this Texas company, India is unlikely to benefit immediately from this grant of licence. But the decision paves the way for India, which does not have a free trade agreement with the U.S., to get its companies seek similar licences for import of the much-needed gas from the U.S. in large quantities from other terminals. The existing federal law generally requires approval of natural gas exports to countries that have an FTA with the U.S.

For countries that do not have an FTA with the U.S., the Natural Gas Act directs the Department of Energy to grant export authorisations unless the Department finds that the proposed exports “will not be consistent with the public interest.”

 


CASH TRANSFERS ARE BAD FOR FOOD SECURITY

India’s hard won gains in achieving food security are in danger of being undermined by a clause in the National Food Security Bill that encourages States to adopt cash transfers in lieu of food entitlements under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Supporting this view, a recent report by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) concluded that the provision of food subsidies in the form of cash would save the government crores of rupees. Additionally, cash transfers will supposedly eliminate middlemen such as dealers and transporters, ensuring that the subsidy reaches intended beneficiaries.

Cash transfers are a solution only if we view the PDS in isolation, rather than as part of a larger food policy. India’s food policy begins with the procurement of rice and wheat and price support operations by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the CACP. Each State is entitled to purchase a certain amount of food grains from the FCI at subsidised prices for distribution through its Fair Price (Ration) Shops. It is this distribution end that constitutes the PDS, and what the cash transfers would replace. Besides not taking into account the devaluing effect of inflation or the role of intra household dynamics when it comes to cash transfers, its supporters do not specify what would happen to the agricultural commodities that are procured by the FCI. As the policy exists today, the government holds millions of tons of rice and wheat, well above the buffer norms required by law. To reduce its stocks, the government has preferred open market operations (to bulk consumers) and export to distribution through the PDS.

Experiments with Decontrol

Using those actions as an indicator of the government’s policy orientation, cash transfers arguably are a gateway to greater deregulation of the food market. Relying on cash transfers alone would mean that the beneficiary households would have to turn to the market to meet all their food needs. More importantly, the stabilising effect that the PDS has on consumption and prices would be lost. Cash transfers thus are only a partial substitute to the PDS.

To understand the importance of a broad food policy, we only have to look at India’s brief experiments with decontrol. The government’s policy reaction to the Bengal famine of 1943, which led to the death of 1.5 million people, provides us with a primer of what not to do in a famine situation. At first, there was a complete laissez-faire policy towards food grain trade, which led to hoarding by traders, farmers and consumers. Subsequently, the provincial governments introduced a policy of procurement and distribution of food grains, which failed miserably as they did not have the requisite infrastructure to implement the policy. For example, grains were rotting in Calcutta, the centre of distribution in the eastern region, as the government had not made arrangements to handle incoming stocks. To avoid what was called a “tragedy in unpreparedness,” the government took steps towards setting up a comprehensive food administration, including procurement by the government, the building of buffer stocks and the introduction of rationing.

The next phase of free markets in food was under the Food Minister, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, beginning 1952. Improved food grains production in 1953 and 1954 led to declining prices and a temporary break from chronic shortages. Government procurement of food grains was stopped and restrictions on the movement of grains were removed.

Paradoxically, even as farmers faced deflationary conditions, there were shortages and price rise in various parts of the country. The instability in prices, combined with adverse weather in the autumn of 1955, had a dampening effect on production.

In 1957, the Ashok Mehta-led Food Grains Enquiry Committee concluded that an expanded money supply, growing industrialisation and urbanisation and increased investment led to enhanced purchasing power. On the other hand, hoarding by traders, producers and consumers as well as speculative activities in anticipation of public investment by the government led to a rise in prices.

Additionally, it found that prices were allowed to fall too low in 1955 and that there was no coordinated policy of combating inflation and shortages that began in 1956.

Back to Controls

The government had to reintroduce controls and carry-out price support operations to curb the fall in prices. It opened an additional 10,000 ration shops between October 1956 and September 1957, and released its stocks to combat price rise. This episode underscored the need for the government to intervene in the market to influence prices and output. The Food Grains Enquiry Committee recommended the setting up of institutions like the FCI and the CACP for this purpose. The government’s decision to promote cash transfers in the National Food Security Bill presented in the recently concluded session of Parliament ignores these lessons from India’s past.

Since the 1950s, India has made major strides in agricultural production as evidenced by the large government-held stocks of wheat and rice. However, problems of inadequate nutrition, starvation and double digit food price inflation remain. Strengthening of the PDS, as seen in Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, would serve the purpose of ensuring food security for the nation through stabilising prices, production and consumption. As seen in the past, government withdrawal from the food sector can lead to a decline in production and an increase in hoarding and speculative activity.

Unlike the PDS, cash transfers cannot counter the resultant shortages and price rise. In a growing economy like India with constantly increasing demand, the government needs to intervene on both the demand and supply sides to ensure food security for all its citizens