Current Affairs May – 2020
Government announces Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan to make India self-reliant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his address to the nation on 12 May, the Prime Minister said that a special package worth approximately ₹20 lakh crore has been set aside to boost the economy and provide relief and benefits to businesses, enterprises and those who have been adversely affected by the pandemic and the lockdown that followed.
The total stimulus package is worth ₹20,97,053 crore, which includes a ₹1.92 lakh crore stimulus from measures announced previously and ₹8.01 lakh crore provided by the Reserve Bank of India. The balance amount is divided into five tranches (parts). The details of each tranche are provided below.
- The first tranche amounting to ₹5.94 lakh crore is aimed at supporting small businesses, non-banking finance companies, housing finance companies, microfinance, power distribution companies, contractors and developers.
- The second tranche totalling ₹3.10 lakh crore aims to provide relief to farmers and migrant workers who are the worst affected during the lockdown. Measures include providing credit to farmers, free foodgrains to stranded migrant workers for two months, introduction of ‘one nation, one ration card’ for migrants and employment generation under various government schemes.
- The third tranche of ₹1.5 lakh crore is aimed at reviving agriculture and allied sectors such as fisheries, dairy and animal husbandry.
- The fourth and fifth tranche together account for ₹48,100 crore. The fourth tranche is dedicated to structural reforms in eight sectors, namely coal, minerals, defence production, civil aviation, power distribution companies in the union territories, social infrastructure projects, space, and atomic energy.
- The fifth tranche is aimed at increasing the allocation in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), healthcare and related sectors, and providing an impetus to technology-driven education.
CRISIL report predicts worst-ever recession for India
India is set to face its worst recession ever with the economy shrinking by 5% in the current financial year (April 2020 to March 2021), says a report from Credit Rating Information Services of India Limited (CRISIL). The report titled ‘Minus Five’ released on 26 May says that the first quarter of the fiscal year (April to June 2020) will see the economy shrink by 25%.
This is the fourth recession that India has faced since Independence and the first since liberalisation. The recessions that happened in 1958, 1966 and 1980 all resulted from a deficient monsoon leading to a fall in agricultural production. However, this recession is completely different from the earlier ones. For one, it has affected the non-agricultural sectors the most. In fact, agriculture is projected to grow at the normal rate, assuming the monsoon would be normal. And unlike earlier recessions, India’s exports have been badly hit this time, and this will also affect its financial position.
The report says that industrial production for March fell by over 16%, exports contracted 60.3% in April, and new telecom subscribers declined 35%, while railway freight movement plunged 35% compared to the previous year. Since India’s lockdown has been the most stringent in Asia, the impact on economic growth will be correspondingly larger. According to the report, it will be tough for India to return to its pre-pandemic economic growth levels at least for the next three years.
Survey finds majority of Indians favour WFH as it improves air quality
A survey conducted by Climate Trends, a New Delhi-based communications initiative, and market research company YouGov found that 80% of the people believe that working from home (WFH) will have an impact on air quality. This survey was conducted to understand how people were experiencing the nationwide lockdown imposed following the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 72% said they are willing to continue working from home even after the lockdown ends.
The online survey was conducted among urban professionals from across 10 cities – Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Pune and Surat.
Nearly half the respondents indicated that they suffer from health problems related to air pollution, including respiratory, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. This explains why they are willing to take steps to maintain the reduction in air pollution resulting from the lockdown.
Employers also see benefits in this change of scenario. Nine out of ten employers think their company has saved on operational costs since employees began working from home. As many as 89% are willing to encourage WFH if proper work infrastructure is in place, productivity is maintained, and there is evidence of health benefits due to overall reduction in air pollution. Eighty-five percent of employers agreed that WFH saved substantial man hours by eliminating commute time.
Harsh Vardhan appointed WHO Executive Board Chairman
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took charge as the Executive Board Chairman of the World Health Organization (WHO) on 22 May. He succeeds Dr Hiroki Nakatani of Japan.
The Executive Board is one of the two primary decision-making bodies of WHO, the other being the World Health Assembly. The Board comprises 34 individuals, technically qualified in the field of health, elected for three-year terms. The chairman’s post is held by rotation for one year by each of the WHO’s six regional groups: African Region, Region of the Americas, South-East Asia Region, European Region, Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Western Pacific Region.
As head of the Board, Dr Harsh Vardhan will work towards implementing the decisions and policies of the World Health Assembly, advise it and facilitate its work.
Major Suman Gawani wins UN peacekeeping award
Major Suman Gawani of the Indian Army has been awarded the prestigious United Nations Military Gender Advocate Award (2019) in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the peacekeeping efforts in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The award was presented to her by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guetteres on 29 May, the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in a virtual ceremony. Along with Major Gawani, Brazilian Naval Officer Carla Monteiro de Castro Araujo also received the award.
Major Gawani is the first Indian peacekeeper to receive this award. During her deployment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, Major Gawani mentored more than 230 military observers and government forces on conflict-related sexual violence and ensured the presence of women military observers in the mission’s team sites.
The award was created in 2016 to honour the efforts and dedication of individual military peacekeepers in promoting the UN principles on women, peace and security in peace operations.
Abhas Jha appointed to top position in World Bank
Indian economist Abhas Jha has been appointed as World Bank’s Practice Manager for Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management for South Asia. His area of jurisdiction includes India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives. According to the World Bank, Jha will work closely with other Practice Managers, Global Leads and Global Solutions Groups to conceive and deliver innovative and high-quality development solutions for these countries and strengthen disaster risk management and climate action in the region.
Bundesliga is first football league to resume season amid pandemic
The German football league Bundesliga became the world’s first major sports competition to resume its season following the lockdown imposed in Germany to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The matches which were suspended on 13 March resumed on 16 May.
The league authorities are taking several precautions to ensure safety during matches. All teams are being kept in quarantine before the games. The matches are played in empty stadiums, behind closed doors with no fans to minimise the risk of infection. Social distancing is strictly followed among players as well as coaches, which means no celebratory hugging or patting. Instead, the players will celebrate with forearm bumps.
Australia tops men’s Test rankings, England heads ODI rankings
Australia moved to the top of the men’s Test and T20I rankings table, while England continues to lead the ODI rankings after the annual update carried out on 1 May. Australia (116) have taken over from India as the top-ranked Test side with New Zealand (115) remaining in second place. India is now third with 114 points.
This is the first time that India has lost the top spot since October 2016. Sri Lanka and South Africa are in the fifth and sixth places, respectively.
In the men’s ODI team rankings, reigning world champions England (127) have increased their lead over second-placed India from six to eight points. New Zealand remains in third place. In the T20I team rankings, Australia (278) tops the list. Pakistan, which had overtaken New Zealand to reach the top position in January 2018, are now fourth with 260 points. England has moved to the second position with 268 points, while India moved up one place to the third position, just two points behind England.
Industry status to sports in Mizoram
Mizoram became the first state in the country to accord industry status to sports after the state cabinet cleared the Sports and Youth Service department’s proposal for the same on 22 May. Through this decision, the state government aims to professionalise sports in the state, commercialise sporting endeavours and woo investors.
Mizoram is known as a sports-loving state. Football, which is played competitively through the Mizoram Premier League, the state’s highest football league, is especially popular. Several players from the state play in various teams of the Indian Super League, one of the top premier football leagues in India. Other popular games played at the league level include volleyball, basketball and boxing. Indigenous games such as inbuan (wrestling), insuknawr (stick fighting), etc., are also very popular in the state.
Cyclone Amphan batters coastal Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh
Cyclone Amphan, the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Indian ocean cyclone season, struck Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha on 20 May. The cyclone made landfall between Digha in West Bengal and the Hatiya island in Bangladesh, causing heavy rain along with high-velocity winds of 155 km/hr that left a trail of destruction.
According to the India Meteorological Department, Amphan is the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the Ganges Delta since Sidr in 2007, and the first super cyclonic storm to originate in the Bay of Bengal since the 1999 Odisha super cyclone. Coastal areas in West Bengal comprising East Midnapur, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Kolkata, Hooghly and Howrah as well as several coastal districts of Odisha were severely affected by the cyclone. It also caused significant destruction in Bangladesh.
Although the cyclone’s effects were widespread, the fatality rate was minimised due to timely evacuation of people from vulnerable areas. Over five lakh people were evacuated in West Bengal and more than 1.58 lakh were evacuated in Odisha ahead of the cyclone. The Bangladesh government had evacuated 20 lakh people.
North India comes under severe locust attack
Large parts of India, Iran, Pakistan and several north-west African nations have come under severe locust attack over the past couple of months, leading to huge crop losses. Several states in North India faced locust attacks in May. The locusts first entered Rajasthan from Pakistan in early April and then began fanning out to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Locusts resemble grasshoppers and are harmless in small groups. However, when their population grows, their behaviour changes, and they become extremely gregarious, devouring standing crops and causing serious damage.
The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) that is presently attacking India is a particularly notorious species. A single swarm of desert locusts contain 40 to 80 million adults in one square kilometre and consume the equivalent of food eaten by 35,000 people in one day. These are capable of flying up to 150–200 km per day. According to the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this year, the locusts are breeding 400 times more than usual due to favourable climatic conditions, and thereby posing huge threats to food security. India’s Agriculture Ministry estimates that locusts have destroyed over three lakh hectares of crops in India since the beginning of May, and another six lakh hectares is under threat.
The FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service has warned of several successive locust invasions until July in Rajasthan. The swarms could then move eastward as far as Bihar and Odisha and then turn west and return to Rajasthan as the direction of wind changes during the monsoon.
Gas leak in Vizag factory kills 11
A major gas leak occurred in the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam on 7 May leaving 11 people dead and nearly 1000 people sick. The poisonous gas, styrene leaked from one of the unit’s chambers around 3 a.m. Following the gas leak, toxic fumes spread to nearby villages and hundreds of people living within a 5 km radius of the plant were evacuated.
According to preliminary investigations, the accident was the result of improper maintenance of units storing syrene.
Bumblebees speed up flowering in unique way
Climate change threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of nature. However, in many instances, the flora and fauna adapt to deal with the uncertain conditions.
A recent study led by researchers from ETH, Zurich (Switzerland) has found a surprising bumblebee behaviour that may help overcome the challenges of pollination resulting from erratic weather. The group observed that bumblebee workers use their mouthparts to pinch the leaves of plants that have not flowered yet, and the resulting damage stimulates the production of new flowers that bloom earlier than those in plants that have not been stimulated. They also found that more damage was caused to the leaves when there was little or no pollen available. The research group studied the effect of the damage inflicted on tomato and mustard plants by the bumblebees and found that damaged tomato plants flowered up to 30 days earlier, while the damaged mustard plants flowered about 14 days earlier.
The researchers found that bumblebees exhibited the same behaviour under lab conditions as well as outdoor settings. Furthermore, it was observed that not only captive-bred bumblebees but wild bee species also bite the leaves of plants. However, other pollinating insects, such as honeybees, did not exhibit such behaviour. Researchers believe that the bumblebees’ efforts to mitigate the local shortages of pollen benefit other pollinators as well.
Climate change leading to shorter and younger trees
Environmental changes are transforming forests worldwide, resulting in shorter and younger trees that could deeply impact global ecosystems. In a study published in the journal Science on 29 May, research led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels have led to a dramatic decrease in the age and stature of forests.
For the study titled Pervasive Shifts in Forest Dynamics in a Changing World, the researchers used satellite imagery along with a detailed literature review. They came to the conclusion that the average tree size has declined globally over the last century and this trend is likely to continue due to environmental changes. Older forests host much higher biodiversity than young ones and store more carbon than young forests. Carbon storage and biodiversity are extremely important to mitigate climate change.
Rising temperatures limit photosynthesis and stunt tree growth, while severe and frequent wildfires make it hard for forests to regenerate. Droughts can kill trees and create conditions for insect or pathogen attacks. Scientists say that these changes are happening so quickly that forests do not have time to recover.
Science & Technology
India to allow private players in its space programme
In a historic move, the Indian government on 16 May announced that the private sector would be allowed to participate in its space programme, which includes building of satellites and providing launch and space-based services. According to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the private sector will be allowed to use the facilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and other relevant assets to improve their capacities. In addition to this, future projects for planetary explorations and outer space travel will also be opened up for the private sector.
The government promised that it would provide a favourable policy and regulatory environment to private players.
Faster soft robots that mimic cheetah movement developed
Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed soft robots that move quicker than those from previous generations. The design of the robots was inspired by the biomechanics of the cheetah, the fastest creature on land. These robots are also capable of grabbing objects delicately with sufficient strength. The details of the research was published in the journal Science Advances on 8 May.
Soft robots offer a wide range of functionalities, but they have always been slow and their strength to manipulate (operate objects in a skilful manner) is low. This led the researchers to look for ways to improve their capabilities and adopt a cheetah-like design for these robots. The robots have a spring-powered spine which helps them to quickly exert force against the ground. This enables the robot to gallop across surfaces like a cheetah, as opposed to the earlier models which used to crawl. The researchers say that these robots can be made even faster and more powerful and can be fine-tuned to perform various operations.
Largest collection of ancient human footprints discovered in Africa
Evolutionary biologists from Chatham University in Pittsburgh have discovered more than 400 ancient human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic sediments in northern Tanzania. These are the largest ever to be found in Africa.
The report titled ‘Snapshots of Human Anatomy, Locomotion and Behaviour from Late Pleistocene Footprints at Engare Sero, Tanzania’ published on 14 May in Scientific Reports says that the footprints date back to between 10,000 and 12,000 years.
The footprints have been remarkably preserved as they were pressed into wet ash flowing from the nearby Oldoinyo L’engai volcano and dried almost immediately like concrete.
The team analysed foot impression sizes, distances between prints and the direction of the prints. They found that one collection of tracks was made by a group of 17 people walking southwest across the landscape. Comparisons with modern human footprint measurements indicate that this group consisted of 14 women, two men and one young boy. According to the scientists, the women may have been foraging for food, while a few males accompanied them, which suggests a division of labour based on gender in ancient human communities. This is similar to the modern behaviour of Hadza hunter-gatherer societies of Tanzania. The researchers hope that the study would motivate future research efforts to reconstruct past behaviours.
COVID-19 vaccine: Latest updates
The search for a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is going at a steady pace around the world. Let us look at the progress made by leading research institutes and pharmaceutical companies in the quest to develop a vaccine.
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute began their clinical trials in April. The first phase of the trial involved healthy volunteers in the age group of 18–55. In the second and third phases of the trial which are being done simultaneously, older adults and children are being administered the vaccine. UK-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has signed an agreement with Oxford to manufacture the potential vaccine.
Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna announced in May that it has successfully completed the first phase of the clinical trials. In the second phase, 600 participants in two groups (18–55 and above 56) will undergo the vaccine trial.
Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech has reached Phase II of the coronavirus vaccine trial with more than 1000 volunteers participating. The company is in preliminary talks to hold Phase III trials.
French drugmaker Sanofi SA declared in May that it plans to enrol thousands of subjects globally for trials of an experimental vaccine that it is developing in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline Plc. Sanofi is working on two vaccine projects to prevent COVID-19.
American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which is co-producing its vaccine with the help of German biotech company BioNTech, has started the process of dosing patients. Four vaccine candidates (vaccines that hold promise) are being tested on volunteers to identify the most viable and suitable one. The tests are currently going on in Germany and parts of USA. Another US-based vaccine development company Novavax announced in May that it had begun Phase-I trials of its vaccine candidate in Australia. The preliminary results of this phase are expected in July, after which Phase-II trials will begin in multiple countries, including the US.
A few Indian companies are also working to develop vaccines to prevent the pandemic. Notable among these are Zydus Cadila; Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) which has collaborated with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR); Mynvax which has tied up with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; and Indian Immunologicals Ltd which has linked up with Griffith University of Australia. The vaccines are in the preliminary stages of development.
US terminates relationship with WHO
United States President Donald Trump on 29 May announced that his country has decided to terminate all ties with the World Health Organization (WHO), saying that it failed to monitor and regulate the coronavirus pandemic. The president said that he will redirect its funding from the Geneva-based WHO towards other global public health organisations.
In April, the president had frozen the US funding to WHO blaming it for mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. The United States is presently WHO’s largest single contributor, providing more than $400 million in 2019, which is around 15% of its total budget.
WHO sets up foundation
The World Health Organization (WHO) on 27 May announced the creation of the WHO Foundation, an independent grant-making entity to support the organisation’s efforts to address the most pressing global health challenges.
The Foundation, headquartered in Geneva, will support global public health needs, from mental health and non-communicable diseases to emergency preparedness, outbreak response and health system strengthening. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial focus of the Foundation will be on emergencies and pandemic response.
Canada bans assault-style weapons
The Canadian government on 1 May announced a ban on several models of military-grade assault weapons. The decision came in the wake of a mass shooting which killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia. The new rules would make it illegal to sell, transport, import or use 1,500 varieties of assault weapons.
The ban is effective immediately, but there will be a two-year amnesty period for law-abiding gun owners to comply. During the amnesty period, the firearms cannot be used or sold, but they may be exported if the owners have proper permits.
Canada has one of the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world, at 34.7 firearms per 100 people, according to the Small Arms Survey, 2018. The country still trails far behind the US, which has close to 120 guns per 100 people.
India and Bangladesh set up new ports of call
India and Bangladesh recently signed an agreement to operationalise five new ports of call and added two extended ports of calls in each country to boost bilateral trade. Ports of call are intermediate stops for a ship on its scheduled journey for taking on supplies or fuel.
Currently, there are six ports of call between India and Bangladesh. On India’s side, they are Haldia, Kolkata, Pandu, Karimganj, Dhubri and Shilghat, and on the Bangladesh side, they are Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj, Mongla, Pangaon and Ashuganj. The five new ports of call on the Indian side are Dhulian, Maia, Kolaghat, Sonamura and Jogigopha, and on the Bangladesh side are Rajshahi, Sultanganj, Chilmari, Daudkandi and Bahadurabad. The new extended ports of call are Tribeni (Bandel) and Badarpur in India and Ghorasal and Muktarpur in Bangladesh.
The government said that inland vessels of both the countries can ply on the designated protocol route and dock at the ports of call in each country that are notified for loading/unloading of cargo.
Both nations have a long-standing and time-tested protocol on transit and trade through inland waterways, first signed in 1972 and last renewed in 2015 for five years.
UN releases postage stamp to mark anniversary of smallpox eradication
The United Nations Postal Administration in association with the World Health Organization (WHO) released a commemorative postage stamp on 8 May on the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox – the only infectious disease to have been eradicated so far. The stamp recognises the global solidarity in fighting smallpox and honours the millions of people who worked together to eradicate the disease.
Smallpox had been around for at least 3000 years, and killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. The eradication efforts spanned over ten years and was spearheaded by the WHO, involving health workers around the world who administered half a billion vaccinations.
The UN said that the successful smallpox eradication programme yielded vital knowledge and tools for disease surveillance, vaccination and the importance of health promotion in fighting other diseases.
Bryan Washington wins Dylan Thomas award
Bryan Washington was awarded the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize for his debut book Lot on 14 May. The book is a collection of stories exploring the lives of marginalised people in Houston. Other books shortlisted for the prize included Surge by Jay Bernard, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, Inland by Téa Obreht, If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
The Dylan Thomas Prize is a leading prize for writers under the age of 40. It is given to honour the memory of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas.