Topic 1 : Mammal extinct for 60 years rediscovered
Why in news: A mammal that was last recorded in 1961 and was believed to be extinct has been rediscovered in a remote Indonesian forest.
- The species was previously recorded only once by a Dutch scientist in 1961.
- An echidna, this mammal has been named after David Attenborough, the famed filmmaker and naturalist.
- Echidnas sometimes known as spiny anteaters, are quill-covered monotremes (egg-laying mammals) belonging to the family Tachyglossidae.
- The four extant species of echidnas and the platypus are the only living mammals that lay eggs and the only surviving members of the order Monotremata.
- The discovery was made in Indonesia’s Cyclops Mountains, the last known home of the species.
- The species in one of the only five living species of monotremes on the planet.
- IUCN status:
- The species is tagged as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.Topic 2 : Smog Tower
Why in news: Despite emergency measures, the effectiveness of smog towers in New Delhi is under renewed debate as the city grapples with its annual environmental crisis.
What are smog towers?
- Delhi residents often keep air purifiers (small fans connected to a high-efficiency particulate air filter, or HEPA) at home.
- The fan pushes the air through a filter that traps dust, particulate matter, pollen, and other pollutants.
- A smog tower follows similar principles and is intended to be a giant air purifier installed in the open.
- The tower is designed to capture pollution particles and improve air quality in densely populated areas.
- They are also costly to set up.
- The one serving the city’s iconic business center, Connaught Place, set up in 2021, cost about $2.5 million.
- Inspired by a smog tower set up in the city of Xi An in China, the Supreme Court asked the federal government several years ago to install similar equipment in New Delhi.
- As they operate outdoors, smog towers cannot clean enough air or fast enough to make a difference.
- As soon as filtered air is released, it mixes again with the surrounding pollution, which offsets any improvements.
- A team of researchers found it cleans air with 50% efficiency that drops to 30% at a distance of 50 meters from the filters, and just above 10% when 500 meters away.
- The researchers also discovered that the structure holding filters in place was not tightly sealed, allowing polluted air to bypass them.Topic 3 : Plight of paddy sector in Kerala
Why in news: The plight of Kerala’s paddy sector is in focus after a farmer died by suicide at Kuttanad in Alappuzha, a prominent paddy-growing region in the state.
- MSP for paddy in Kerala
- In Kerala, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) has two components:
- the amount fixed by the Union government, as a minimum payment for procuring crops from farmers, and
- an additional incentive given by the state government.
- Last year, the MSP was Rs 28.20 per kg of paddy.
- Of this, Rs 20.40 was the share of the Union government and Rs 7.80 of the Kerala government.
- This season, the Union government raised its share to Rs 21.83.
- The state government reduced its share from Rs 7.80 to Rs 6.37, bringing the total procurement price to Rs 28.20.
- Even at this rate, the procurement price is reckoned as one of the best prevailing in the country.
- In Kerala, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) has two components:
- Kerala govt’s incentives for paddy cultivation
- The shrinking size of land under paddy cultivation in the state has prompted the state government to introduce incentives to encourage cultivation and dissuade farmers from leaving the paddy fields fallow.
- Input assistance of Rs 5,500 per hectare is given from the state schemes to support paddy cultivation.
- The local self-government bodies (mainly panchayats) support paddy cultivation at the rate of Rs 25,000 per hectare, towards seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and land preparation.
- In 2020, Kerala introduced a royalty scheme for farmers who undertake paddy cultivation for three consecutive years.
- Accordingly, a farmer would get Rs 2,000 per hectare (aid limited to a hectare) as royalty in a year.
- The royalty was increased to Rs 3,000 per hectare.
- However, farmers in different parts of the state complain that these incentives have been inconsistent.
Cost of cultivation and impact on paddy cultivation:
- Despite the incentives, the paddy sector is seen as unprofitable in Kerala mainly due to the spiralling cost of cultivation.
- As per the state’s Economic and Statistics Department, the cost of cultivation per hectare in 2021-22 was Rs 75,430, rising from the previous year’s figure of Rs 69,344.
- Of the total cost:
- hired human labour comprised 41.78 per cent,
- mechanised labour 14.25 per cent and
- manure and chemicals 11.19 per cent.
- This did not include:
- the value of household labour (which is deployed by small and medium farmers who till on their land), and
- interest on land value.
- At that rate, income from one quintal of paddy would be only Rs 2,820.
- A comparison between cost and income shows farmers are on a hand-to-mouth existence.
Other factors contributing to the woes of paddy sector:
- Shortage of labour:
- The biggest problem in Kerala is a shortage of labourers, required mainly for planting the saplings.
- Women had formed a large chunk of the workforce in the paddy sector.
- With the MGNREGS in place, most aged women have vanished from the paddy sector.
- Farmers are now mainly depending upon migrant workers from West Bengal.
- However, their availability in Kerala is mainly during the autumn paddy season.
- The migrant workers are missing during winter crop, forcing farmers to scout for local hands which are limited in numbers.
- Scattered paddy tracts:
- Scattered paddy tracts and conflicting interests among farmers of a particular locality (some want to continue paddy, while others are not keen) often make mechanisation impractical and unviable in many parts of the state.
- Although tractors and tillers are available in Kerala, harvesters have to be brought from Tamil Nadu.
- This, again, has hiked the cost of production.
- In many seasons, paddy had perished in the fields for want of enough harvesters.
- Erratic monsoons:
- In recent years, erratic monsoons during sowing days and unexpected downpours during the harvest have also upset the paddy calendar in the state.
- Menace of wildlife:
- Almost all paddy tracts in Kerala face the menace of wild animals, especially wild boars that raid the paddy fields.
- These attacks leave a wide swathe through the paddy tracts, reducing yield considerably and making harvesting more time-consuming.
Pitfalls of Kerala’s PRS system
- The problem:
- In Kerala, state-run Supplyco procures the paddy from farmers and hands over the produce to private mills, which convert the paddy into rice for its distribution through the Public Distribution System (PDS).
- This rice would be included in the share of Kerala’s rice lift from the government’s Food Corporation of India (FCI).
- The central government starts the process of distributing its share of MSP only after the rice reaches the PDS network for distribution.
- This process, starting from fields to ration shops, takes at least four to six months.
- The solution:
- The Kerala government introduced a loan scheme in 2015 to overcome this delay.
- Under this, when Supplyco takes the paddy from farmers, they are to be given Paddy Receipt Sheets (PRS) for the procured quantity.
- Earlier, Supplyco used to directly pay the farmers.
- However, due to the financial crunch of the state government, a consortium of banks was formed to help the farmers.
- Accordingly, farmers would get their amount of paddy sale on production of these PRS from the concerned banks.
- Problem with the solution:
- But banks would credit the amount to farmers’ accounts only as a loan, which the Supplyco or the government would repay, with the interest fixed by the banks.
- The government often defaults on the payment of the PRS loan, blaming the delay in the release of MSP from the Union government.
- When the government fails in timely repayment of the PRS loan, it affects the farmers’ credit score.
- This affects their other loan transactions apart from fresh agriculture loans. Farmers are now demanding the scrapping of the PRS loan system.Topic 4 : US-China climate deal
Why in news: The United States and China announced an agreement to sharply increase clean energy, displace fossil fuels and reduce emissions that are warming the planet.
- Together, they account for 38% of the world’s greenhouse gases.
- If the world’s two biggest polluting countries can agree to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, other countries should find it easier to follow suit.
About the climate deal:
- Increasing renewables capacity:
- The countries agreed to pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 with the intention to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.
- Both countries anticipate that they will achieve meaningful absolute power sector emission reduction this decade.
- Reduction targets:
- Both countries agreed that in their next set of national climate pledges, they would set reduction targets for all greenhouse gas emissions — not just carbon dioxide but also methane, nitrous oxide and other planet-warming gases.
- China’s willingness to address methane is particularly notable as it has agreed in principle to cut methane.
- Methane has been notably absent from China’s previous commitment under the Paris Agreement.
- This announcement is a major step because China is the world’s largest methane emitter and serious actions to curb this gas is essential for slowing global warming in the near term.
- Progress is too slow:
- Critics points out that it will not be enough as the world is still acting too slowly to address climate change.
- No decisive action:
- The US-China language around displacing fossil fuels did not clearly commit either country to take decisive action.
- It is silent on the need to phase down oil and gas emissions.
- No commitment on phasing out fossil fuels:
- The deal also does not include any promises by China to phase out its use of coal or to stop issuing permits for new coal plants and building them.
- Scientists say immediately reducing fossil fuel use is essential to avoid further catastrophic warming.
- The two nations said nothing about the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels this decade, which will be a central issue at the COP28 summit.Topic 5 : Himalayan Yew
Why in news: The Pustul plant or Himalayan Yew, scientifically known as Taxus wallichiana, is grappling with the looming threat of extinction, posing a significant risk to cancer treatment.
- The Pustul plant, locally recognised as Ustul, Birmi, or thunner among tribal communities, belongs to the gymnosperms group.
- Its sister species, Taxus Bacata, initially found in Europe was discovered to possess cancer-treating properties.
- Taxol, extracted from both Taxus Bacata and Taxus wallichiana, serves as a vital anti-cancer drug administered to patients globally.
About Himalayan Yew:
- The Himalayan yew, is a species of yew, native to the Himalaya and parts of south-east Asia.
- The species has a variety of uses in traditional medicine.
- It is a medium-sized evergreen coniferous tree.
- It is dioecious, with the male and female cones on separate plants.
- Conservation status:
- It is currently classified as endangered by the IUCN.
- Medicinal uses
- The tree has medicinal use in Ayurveda and Tibetan medicine.
- Taxus wallichiana is also a source of the chemical precursors to the anticancer drug paclitaxel (taxol).
- Taxus wallichiana is used for making tea by the Bhotiya tribal community in the Garhwal Himalaya.
- This species is also used as fuelwood by the local communities.Topic 6 : Depletion of water reserves in southern India
Why in news: According to a recent report from the Central Water Commission (CWC), water levels in India’s southern states’ reservoirs are low compared to last year and compared to other regions of the country in 2023.
Currently available stocks in the dams:
- The CWC monitors 42 reservoirs located in the southern states:
- Andhra Pradesh,
- Kerala and
- Tamil Nadu.
- Their collective storage capacity is 53.334 Billion Cubic Metre (BCM).
- In September 2023, the water stocks stood at 25.609 BCM (48 per cent of the total storage capacity), which then dropped to 24.575 BCM (46 per cent of the total storage capacity).
- According to the latest CWC report, this stock has dropped further to 23.617 BCM (44 per cent of the total capacity).
- Last year around this time, the collective water reserves were 87 per cent of the total storage capacity of these states.
|Reservoir stocks (% of total storage capacity)
- Status during monsoon:
- During normal monsoon years over the country, the available water reserves in southern India touch 91 per cent of the total storage capacity.
- Even though the country as a whole recorded normal rainfall in 2023 (820mm, 94 per cent of the Long Period Average), the monsoon over the south peninsular was not appreciable.
Why are the stocks low?
- Rain deficit:
- There was a vast inter-seasonal rainfall variability recorded during the southwest monsoon this year.
- The season ended with seeing large-scale rainfall deficits, which cumulatively ended with 8 per cent below normal, which was quantitatively 659mm.
- A dry October:
- October over southern peninsular India remained the sixth driest in 123 years.
- The rainfall recorded was 58.7mm against a normal of 148.2mm.
- Normally during October, most of southern India receives rainfall, contributed by the retreating southwest monsoon and the incoming northeast monsoon.
- Cyclone Hamoon:
- Cyclone Hamoon’s development in the Bay of Bengal during the onset phase of the northeast monsoon dampened the rainfall activity, particularly over Tamil Nadu and coastal Andhra Pradesh.
- Collective rainfall deficiency:
- As a result, the collective rainfall deficiency in south peninsular India slipped to 60 per cent.
- The shrinking of water reserves is not an encouraging development.
- The immediate impact could be felt on irrigated farming, particularly the high water-intensive paddy cultivation which is largely undertaken in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
- The impact will spiral over to the availability of drinking water.Topic 7 : Sub-categorisation within Scheduled Castes
Why in news: In an election rally in Telangana, Prime Minister of India promised to look into the sub-categorisation of Scheduled Castes (SCs) to identify and help the most backward among them.
What is sub-categorisation?
- The idea is to create sub-categories within the larger group of Scheduled Castes for the purpose of reservation.
- The argument for creating sub-categories is that it would ensure equitable distribution of representation among all SC communities.
Is sub-categorising legal?
- Justice Ramachandra Raju Commission:
- The issue first reached the courts when the Andhra Pradesh government in 1996 formed a one-man Commission of Justice Ramachandra Raju.
- It recommended sub-categorisation of SCs in the State based on evidence that some communities were more backward and had less representation than others.
- The Supreme Court in 2004 held that the State did not have the power to unilaterally sub-categorise communities in the list of SCs or Scheduled Tribes (STs).
- The Constitution has provided that these lists can only be made by Parliament and notified by the President.
- Punjab’s attempt to sub-categorize:
- A five-judge Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra had held in 2020, that deciding on the quantum of benefits in the lists of SCs/STs already notified would not amount to violation of constitutional provisions and that States could do it.
- Given the contradiction, the 2020 judgment has also been referred to the larger Bench.
Initiatives taken by Union Government:
- Opinion of the Attorney General of India:
- The Attorney-General of India (AGI) had opined that it was possible to sub-categorise SCs.
- Any such classification could be allowed only if there was unimpeachable evidence to indicate a necessity for it.
- A constitutional amendment could be brought in to facilitate this.
- Recommendations of National Commissions:
- The Union government formed a National Commission to look into the question of sub-categorising SCs in Andhra Pradesh.
- The then Cabinet recommended an amendment to Article 341 of the Constitution of India to allow for it.
- But both the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) had opined that a constitutional amendment was not necessary.
- They said that Article 16(4) of the Constitution already provided for States to create special laws for any backward classes it felt was under-represented.
Arguments for sub-categorization:
- Graded inequalities:
- The principal argument for sub-categorisation of SCs has been the graded inequalities among SC communities.
- Even among the marginalised, there are communities that have lesser access to basic facilities.
- As a result, the relatively more forward communities among them have managed to avail benefits consistently while crowding the more backward ones out.
- The solution, therefore is to sub-categorise the communities and provide separate reservation to the more backward communities within the reservation meant for SCs.
- Equal Representation at All Levels:
- The goal is to ensure representation at all levels, including higher positions.
Arguments against sub-categorization:
- Won’t address root cause of the problem:
- Allotting separate reservations within the categories would not really address the root cause of the problem.
- The most backward SCs are lagging so far behind forward SC communities that a separate quota would not help.
- Not enough candidates available:
- Given the disparity, even if posts were reserved at higher levels, these most backward SCs would not have enough candidates to be considered for it in the first place.
- Both the NCSC and the NCST had thus recommended that existing schemes and government benefits should first reach these sections before any sub-categorisation.
- There is a necessity to have concrete data to support sub-categorisation.
- What is primarily needed is concrete population numbers of each community and sub-community and their respective socio-economic data.
- These are the only things that can provide a reasonable ground to decide how castes can be categorised, how much percentage should be given, etc.Topic 8 : First vaccine for chikungunya
Why in news: Recently, the world’s first vaccine for chikungunya was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S.
- The vaccine has been developed by European vaccine manufacturer Valneva and will be available under the brand Ixchiq.
- It has been approved for administration in people who are 18 years or older, and are at increased risk of exposure to the virus.
- It was approved using the Accelerated Approval pathway, which allows the FDA to clear certain products for serious or life-threatening conditions based on evidence of a product’s effectiveness that is likely to provide clinical benefit.
- This approval will fast track the roll out of vaccines in countries where chikungunya is more prevalent, including Brazil, Paraguay, India and parts of western Africa.
- As per the National Centre for Vector Borne Diseases Control, India had 93,455 suspected chikungunya cases until September in 2023
- Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne viral disease caused by the chikungunya virus (CHIKV) that causes fever and severe joint pain.
- The disease was first recognized in 1952 during an outbreak in southern Tanzania.
- It is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus that belongs to the alphavirus genus of the family Togaviridae.
- The name “chikungunya” derives from a word in the Kimakonde language of southern Tanzania, meaning “to become contorted”, and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers with joint pain (arthralgia).
- Chikungunya is transmitted to humans by the bites of infected female mosquitoes – Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus.
- Chikungunya, is characterised by severe joint pain and impaired mobility, and comes with fever.
- The WHO fact sheet says Chikungunya is prevalent in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; but sporadic outbreaks have been reported in other regions.
- As of now, there is no cure, only symptomatic relief, with analgesics to help with the pain, antipyretics for the fever, rest, and adequate fluids.
- Prevention includes mosquito control activities, primarily falling under public health outreach and routine civic maintenance.
- Individuals are also advised to use medicated mosquito nets and ensure that there is no water stagnation in any containers at home, in order to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes.
About the vaccine:
- Ixchiq is administered as a single dose by injection into the muscle.
- It contains a live, weakened version of the chikungunya virus.
- It may cause symptoms in the vaccine recipient similar to those experienced by people who have the disease.
- Side effects:
- The most reported side effects by vaccine recipients were headache, fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, fever, nausea and tenderness at the injection site.