Current Affairs April – 2020
Centre expands domicile rule for J&K
The Central Government has redefined the domicile rule for Jammu and Kashmir to include people who have been living in the union territory for at least 15 years. The government in its gazette notification issued on 31 March stated that any person who has resided in J&K for a minimum of 15 years or has studied in the union territory for at least seven years and appeared in secondary and higher secondary board examinations would be considered for the domicile status of J&K. Besides, a person who is registered as a migrant by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrants) in the union territory is also entitled to domicile status. The children of parents who have stayed in J&K for 15 years or are registered as migrants are also eligible to apply for domicile certificates.
Further, the notification states that the children of central government officials, all-India service officials, officials of public sector undertakings, autonomous bodies of the central government, public sector banks, statutory bodies, central universities and recognised research institutes of central government who have served in J&K for a period of ten years, would also be considered for domicile status. State jobs will be reserved for those who fulfil the domicile criteria of the union territory.
Before the bifurcation of the state into two union territories in 2019, the J&K constitution had defined permanent residents as those who were either born or settled in J&K before 1911 or have acquired immovable property and been residing in the state for not less than ten years prior to 1911.
SC strengthens anti-narcotics law
A recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India has strengthened the existing anti-narcotics law. According to the verdict, in case of seizure of a mixture of narcotics drugs and one or more neutral substances (caffeine, chalk powder, zinc oxide, etc.), the quantity of the neutral substance will also be taken into consideration and the entire quantity will be declared an offending drug attracting appropriate punishment. The decision comes in the wake of an increase in drug trafficking and drug abuse in India.
The decision made by a three-judge bench consisting of Indira Banerjee, Arun Mishra and MR Shah, reverses the 2008 verdict which ruled that punishment under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act will depend only on the quantity of the offending drug present in a seized consignment. For instance, five grams of heroin would classify as a small quantity, while 250 grams of the same contraband would be considered a commercial quantity attracting punishment of up to 20 years in jail. This led drug peddlers to sell heroin mixed with neutral substances and escape with minor sentences.
India becomes third largest military spender in the world
India has become the third largest military spender in the world after the US and China, says a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The report titled ‘Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2019’ says that India’s military spending grew by 6.8% to $71.1 billion in 2019 – the highest in South Asia.
According to the report, India’s military expenditure has increased significantly over the past few decades. The growth in expenditure from 1990 to 2019 was a whopping 259%.
India’s continued tensions with Pakistan and China is considered as the main reason for the increase in military expenditure. Another factor pushing up the spending is the expansion of the salary and pension bills of armed forces personnel.
The US topped the list, accounting for 38% of global military spending. China, which came second in the category, contributed to 14% of global military expenditure, and India at the third position had a 3.7% share. Russia with a global share of 3.4% and Saudi Arabia with 3.2% occupied the fourth and fifth positions respectively. Together, the five biggest spenders accounted for 62% of global military spending.
Over 5 million people faced displacement in India in 2019: GRID 2020 Report
Over five million (50 lakhs) people faced displacement in India in 2019, as per the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID 2020). According to the report released by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre on 28 April, India had the highest number of displaced people due to natural disasters in 2019.
More than 2.6 million people suffered displacement in India due to the southwest monsoon in 2019, the wettest in the last 25 years. Eight tropical storms including Maha, Bulbul and Fani hit the coastal areas of the country fuelling further destruction. The most severe was Cyclone Fani, which prompted the evacuation of more than 1.8 million people in Odisha alone. Cyclone Bulbul struck Odisha and West Bengal triggering 1,86,000 displacements. Another 2,89,000 people were evacuated in Gujarat ahead of Cyclone Vayu.
In addition to natural disasters, over 19,000 conflicts and violent incidents also caused displacement of thousands in the country. Political and electoral violence, especially in Tripura and West Bengal, led to the displacement of more than 7,600 people.
The report states that globally 33.4 million people faced displacement due to conflicts and disasters. Disasters were more prevalent in South Asia, East Asia and Pacific regions. India, China, Philippines and Bangladesh recorded more than four million displacements in 2019.
India ranks 142 in World Press Freedom Index
India has ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the ‘World Press Freedom Index 2020’. The report was released on 21 April in the annual ‘Reporters Without Borders’ analysis. India was ranked 140th in the 2019 index.
The top ten countries in this year’s index are Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal.
The report also stated that no journalists were murdered in India in 2019 as compared to six in 2018, which shows a possible improvement in the security system of the country.
Reporters Without Borders is a non-profit organisation that documents attacks on journalists around the world.
Earth breathes easy as pollution drops during lockdown: Reports
The extended lockdown observed by several countries to keep COVID-19 in check has literally proven to be a breath of fresh air. Air quality improvement in the last month in the UK and Europe has resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths as compared to those caused by pollution, revealed a study. The study published by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), says that a drastic fall in traffic and industrial emissions have led to 6,000 fewer children having asthma attacks, 1,900 avoiding hospital emergency room visits and 600 fewer preterm births.
The report found that the highest number of pollution-related casualties projected to have been avoided stood at 2,083 in Germany, followed by the UK at 1,752, Italy at 1,490, France at 1,230 and Spain at 1,083.
According to the report, the levels of major respiratory pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has fallen by 40% compared to last year, while particulate matter (PM2.5) is down by 10%. The report attributes this effect to a decline in power generation from coal and oil, the main sources of NO2 pollution and particulate matter pollution across Europe.
Another report by global air quality information company, IQAir says that the lockdown in major cities across the world has resulted in reductions of particulate matter by up to 60% from the previous year. The report published on 22 April stated that seven out of the 10 cities studied, including New Delhi, Seoul, Wuhan and Mumbai, saw significant improvements in air quality. New Delhi, which is one of the world’s most polluted cities, saw a 60% reduction in PM2.5 levels from March 23 to April 13 as compared to the same period in 2019. Mumbai experienced 34% reduction in pollution, while Sao Paulo’s was down by 32%. The South Korean capital Seoul saw a 54% drop in PM2.5 levels from February 26 to March 18 from the previous year. The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the deadly virus was first identified, saw a 44% reduction in air pollution levels from February 26 to March 18 as compared to the same period last year. Los Angeles experienced a reduction of 31% in its pollution levels.
Largest ozone layer hole over Arctic heals
Scientists have confirmed that the largest hole in the Earth’s ozone layer which developed over the Arctic has now closed. The news was confirmed by Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) and Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) of the European Union.
As per the scientists, the 1-million square kilometre wide hole was healed by the polar vortex, a high-altitude current responsible for bringing cold air to the polar regions. The report published on 28 April clearly states that the closing of the hole is not due to the reduced level of pollution resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown.
The ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere absorbs the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays and shields the planet from the harmful radiation that can cause skin cancer. The hole in the ozone layer was first identified in March this year and was observed to be growing at a steady pace. If the hole had grown bigger, it could have exposed people living in far northern latitudes to high levels of UV radiation.
Holes in the ozone layer are rare over the Arctic region, but form over Antarctica every year due to a combination of frigid temperatures and man-made pollution. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the ozone hole over Antarctica has been shrinking by about 1% to 3% per decade since 2000, thanks largely to a global ban on ozone-depleting chemicals initiated in 1987.
2019 was Europe’s hottest on record
Europe’s average annual temperature hit a record high in 2019, says the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) in its annual ‘European State of the Climate’ report. The report released on Earth Day (22 April) says that the temperatures exceeded the previous hottest years on record, which were 2014, 2015 and 2018. Of Europe’s 12 warmest years on record, 11 have occurred since 2000, the report found.
According to the report, one of the highest temperatures was recorded last year even though there was no El Nino – a weather pattern that typically leads to high temperatures. The heat waves were caused by high pressure hot air in June and July, when countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands recorded their highest ever temperatures. The scientists said these high pressure events are likely to become more severe as the world warms.
The increasing temperatures are largely attributed to record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide and methane, climbed in 2019 and are now at levels not seen on Earth for millions of years, the scientists said.
The 27-country EU plans to reduce its net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050 in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris accord aims to cap global warming below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial industrial levels. This is indeed a tough task considering that global average temperatures have already increased by around 1.1°C since pre-industrial times.
Scientists find highest level of microplastics on seafloor
Researchers have found the highest levels of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor, with up to 1.9 million pieces in a thin layer covering just one square metre.
Over 10 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. Although floating plastic waste at sea has caught public attention lately, these account for less than 1% of the plastic that enters the world’s oceans. The other 99% is thought to occur in the deep ocean, but until now it has been unclear where it actually ends up.
A study conducted by the University of Manchester (UK), National Oceanography Centre (UK), University of Bremen (Germany), IFREMER (France) and Durham University (UK) showed how deep-sea currents act as conveyor belts, transporting tiny plastic fragments and fibres across the seafloor. These currents can concentrate microplastics within huge sediment accumulations, called ‘microplastic hotspots’.
The researchers found that microplastics on the seafloor mainly comprise fibres from textiles and clothing. Since these are not effectively filtered out in domestic wastewater treatment plants, they easily enter rivers and oceans.
The report highlights the need for policy interventions to limit the future flow of plastic into natural environments and minimise its impacts on ocean ecosystems.
Science & Technology
Scientists discover 19 interstellar asteroids hiding in plain sight
Scientists have recently discovered 19 interstellar asteroids. These are asteroids that originated outside our solar system. The asteroids hiding in plain sight have been found orbiting the sun between Jupiter and Neptune. The study was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on 23 April.
According to the study, these asteroids have been circling the sun for more than 4.5 billion years, since the very inception of the solar system. The scientists believe the asteroids moved away from their original location as the universe expanded and the sun grew rapidly, creating its own gravitational pull. The sun sucked in the asteroids towards the solar system and they have remained here ever since.
Scientists believe that the discovery of these interstellar asteroids would help in understanding the physical and chemical similarities and differences between solar system-born and interstellar asteroids.
Long space flights affect brain volume of astronauts
Extended stay in space has been known to affect the human body in several ways. Some of these include loss of muscle mass, skeletal changes, slowing down of cardiovascular functioning, etc. Now, a new study published in the journal Radiology on 14 April suggests that the impact of long-duration space travel is more far-reaching, causing brain volume changes, vision changes and pituitary gland deformation. The study titled Intracranial Effects of Microgravity: A Prospective Longitudinal MRI Study was conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
To carry out the study, data was collected from 11 astronauts, who lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for extended periods of time. The astronauts underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans before and after they went into space.
Evaluations of the MRIs revealed swelling of the optic nerve (nerve that connects the eye to the brain), retinal bleeding, fluffy white patches on the retina and other changes in the eye structure. According to the scientists, these changes are caused due to elevated pressure inside the head during spaceflights. On Earth, the gravitational field causes the pressure of fluids such as venous blood to gradually increase from the head down to the feet while standing or sitting. This pressure gradient is not present in space and hence the blood pools more and increases the pressure in the head region. According to the researchers, alterations to the pituitary gland is also caused due to elevated intracranial pressure during spaceflight.
The researchers said that they are studying ways to reduce the effects of microgravity during space travel. One option under consideration is the creation of artificial gravity in flights by using a large centrifuge (an equipment used to rotate objects) to spin people in either a sitting or prone (lying on the stomach) position.
NASA discovers Earth-sized exoplanet
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 15 April announced the discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet (planet outside our solar system) orbiting in its star’s habitable zone. Scientists discovered this planet named Kepler-1649c, when looking through old observations from the Kepler space telescope, which NASA retired in 2018.
Out of all the exoplanets found by Kepler, this planet, located 300 light years from Earth, is most similar to Earth in terms of size and estimated temperature. It is only 1.06 times larger than Earth and the light received by this planet from its host star is around 75% of the amount of light Earth receives from its Sun. A year on Kepler-1649c is equivalent to only 19.5 Earth days. Since it lies within the habitable zone — the region around a star where a planet could hold water — life on it in some form might be possible. Although there is a lot that is still unknown about Kepler-1649c, including its atmosphere, scientists who discovered this planet say that ‘this intriguing, distant world gives us even greater hope that a second Earth lies among the stars, waiting to be found.’
COVID-19: The race to develop a vaccine is on
With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading rapidly, several pharmaceutical companies and research institutions across the world are working overtime to develop a vaccine. Let us take a look at some of the leading players who hold promise.
At the forefront of the race is Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, whose clinical trials are underway. The vaccine developed by the institute belongs to the type known as a recombinant viral vector vaccine. It uses a weakened version of the common cold virus spiked with proteins from the novel coronavirus to generate a response from the body’s immune system. According to the researchers, if proven effective, the first few million doses of the vaccine could be available by September 2020. Oxford has signed up with seven vaccine manufacturers including Serum Institute of India to produce the vaccine.
Another company leading the pursuit is Massachusetts-based biotech giant Moderna, which has developed a vaccine in a record 42 days after the genetic code of the virus was identified by Chinese scientists. The first phase of the study, which is being conducted by the National Institutes of Health in Seattle, USA, aims to recruit 45 healthy men and women aged between 18 and 55. They will be used in the study to test two doses of the vaccine given 28 days apart, with 12 months’ follow-up after the second dose. According to the company, the second phase would be more extensive and could start in a month’s time.
Pharma major Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the United States is testing their lead vaccine candidate (a vaccine that shows promise). The company plans to start clinical trials in September. If found suitable by the end of the year, the vaccine could be approved for emergency use by early 2021, says J&J.
Meanwhile, BioNTech of Germany has entered into a strategic partnership with Pfizer to develop a vaccine and US-based biotech company, Novavax Inc is collaborating with Emergent Biosolutions to manufacture an experimental vaccine. The company has now identified its lead vaccine candidate and will initiate the first human trials in mid-May.
British pharma major GlaxoSmithKline, French drugmaker Sanofi and Inovio Pharmaceuticals of USA are some of the other well-known companies in the race to develop vaccines for COVID-19. Besides these leading players, research teams from across the world are studying multiple other candidate vaccines and several are set to enter the clinical testing stage within the next few weeks or months.
Global energy demand to plunge this year
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decline in the global energy demand unwitnessed since the Second World War, says a report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Based on an analysis of data collected over a 100 days this year, the IEA’s Global Energy Review released on 30 April gives details on energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emission trends likely to evolve over the rest of 2020.
With lockdowns imposed in several countries, transportation such as road and air travel has been largely restricted, leading to low energy demand. Further, since millions of people are now confined to their homes, the demand for domestic electricity has seen a steep rise while commercial electricity consumption has fallen.
As per the report, countries in full lockdown are seeing an average decline of 25% in energy demand per week, while in countries in partial lockdown, the fall in energy demand is about 18% per week. The report projects that energy demand will fall 6% in 2020 – seven times the decline after the 2008 global financial crisis. This is equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third largest energy consumer. The biggest decline would happen in the advanced countries, with the demand likely to fall by 9% in the United States and 11% in the European Union. The fall in demand is particularly high in the case of conventional fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Renewables are the only energy sources that will grow in 2020, owing to their priority access to grids and low operating costs.
The report observes that the decline in coal and oil use would globally reduce energy-related CO2 emissions by almost 8% in 2020. This would be the largest decrease in emissions ever recorded – nearly six times than the previous record drop of 400 million tonnes in 2009 that resulted from the global financial crisis.
Saudi ends death penalty for minors
Saudi Arabia announced that the kingdom has ended the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. The announcement came two days after the country said that it would ban flogging.
Awwad Alawwad, President of the state-backed commission, stated on 26 April that the royal decree had decided to abolish executions in cases of crimes committed by minors. Instead, they will serve a 10-year-sentence in a juvenile detention centre.
The decree is expected to spare the lives of at least six men who are on death row. They were accused of taking part in anti-government protests during the Arab Spring uprisings while they were under the age of 18.