The HINDU Notes – 11th February 2018 - VISION

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 11th February 2018






πŸ“° Medicare is not healthcare

Insurance is fine but infrastructure is crucial

•What was perhaps the biggest announcement in the Budget didn’t actually involve any money. The National Health Protection Scheme, touted as the world’s largest healthcare programme, envisages providing medical insurance cover of up to Rs. 5 lakh each to 10 crore families. Assuming an average family size of five members, this translates to 50 crore people, or nearly 40% of the population.

•This is a stupendous goal by any yardstick, and the first near-universal welfare measure in the health sector since possibly the 1980s, when governments, constrained by tightening resources and burgeoning populations, switched focus to targeting just the vulnerable sections of society, while leaving it to the private sector to take care of the rest.

•And, as many have pointed out already, the Finance Minister did not allocate any money for this; he only promised to raise the resources when required.

A good idea?

•I, for one, am willing to take Arun Jaitley at his word. I am willing to grant that when the time comes, North Block mandarins will pull some legerdemain and actually find the money to fund the share of the premium which the Centre will have to pay. Of course, if the contours of similar schemes in the past are any indication, this will still amount to only around 40% of the total required, with the balance to be funded by the States (health is a State subject, after all).

•I am even willing to assume that the States too will fall in line and cough up the amount required, since aspirations have been already unleashed on this front and it will be difficult for any political party to swim against the tide and refuse to pay. So, assuming that the money is found and the insurance policies go live in a year or two, does this mean that a significant chunk of the population will be able to afford quality healthcare when they need it? Given the fact that out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare is nearly 63% of the country’s total healthcare expenditure (one of the highest in the world — it’s 32% in China, 11% in the U.S. and the world average is 18.2%), and “catastrophic expenditure” on healthcare pushes millions back into poverty every year in India, an insurance scheme which provides up to a Rs. 5 lakh cover sounds like a great idea.

•Or is it? There is one crucial difference between Medicare assistance (even of the Obamacare variety) and actual healthcare services. The former is a financial product which focuses on enabling beneficiaries to access existing healthcare facilities. It does not in itself ensure the creation of healthcare infrastructure — somebody will still have to build clinics/hospitals, staff them with doctors, nurses, medicines and equipment, and provide these at a cost which falls within the limits of the healthcare insurance policy.

The real challenge

•This is where India has been slipping badly. For instance, it had only about 1,800 hospitals in rural areas, according to the government’s rural health statistics for 2017. The shortfall in percentage terms vis-Γ -vis the population (based on the 2011 Census) is 19% in terms of sub-centres, 22% in terms of primary health centres and 30% in terms of community health centres. As of March 2017, the number of buildings required to be constructed to meet requirements had crossed 40,000.

•Worse, even if the buildings exist, they are often just that — shells, without the requisite staff. According to the Niti Aayog’s latest State-wise healthcare index, the proportion of vacant specialist positions (medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, anaesthesia, ophthalmology, radiology, pathology, ear-nose-throat, dental, psychiatry) ranged from a low of 16.7% in Tamil Nadu (among the larger States clustering) to a staggering 77.7% in Chhattisgarh as of 2015-16. When it came to the availability of a doctor at primary health centres, even the best-performing States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu had 5.9% and 7.6% respectively, while over 41% of the primary health centres in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand didn’t have a doctor available; this was 63.6% in Bihar. About half the primary and community health centres in Rajasthan, Haryana and Bihar did not even have a staff nurse; in Jharkhand it was 74.9%.

•Given this dismal scenario, merely providing the amount is not enough. True, creating a potential addressable medical services consumer base worth Rs. 50 lakh crore will work as a tremendous incentive to the creation of such infrastructure in the private sector, but this will take time. Besides, the private sector will face the same challenges of getting trained medical professionals to work in remote and rural locations. It can, of course, pay more money to such people as incentive, but that again will push up costs.

•The real challenge then remains unchanged: to create the physical healthcare infrastructure on the ground, equip it, staff it, and run it. The last is important. About a quarter of primary health centres in the country, for instance, do not have access to 24-hour power supply, and nearly a fifth don’t have water supply. After that comes the issue of meeting the costs.

πŸ“° Modi reiterates support for Palestine

India’s backing for a sovereign, independent state is “unbroken and unwavering,” PM says in Ramallah

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday said support for the Palestinian cause is a continuing thread in India’s foreign policy and hoped for an early realisation of a “sovereign, independent Palestine living in a peaceful environment”.

•India’s support for Palestine is “unbroken and unwavering. That’s why I am here, in Ramallah,” Mr. Modi said at the administrative headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

•The first Indian Prime Minister to visit Palestine, Mr Modi was speaking after holding bilateral talks with President Mahmoud Abbas.

•The Prime Minister, who arrived at Ramallah’s Presidential compound earlier in the day, laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, whom he described as “a great leader... and a very close friend of the Indian people”.

•Mr. Modi was accompanied by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamadallah at the Arafat mausoleum before he joined President Abbas to receive the guard of honour and hold talks.

Six agreements

•After bilateral talks, the two sides signed six agreements worth around $50 million, including one for setting up a $30 million super speciality hospital in Beit Sahur. Agreements were also signed to build schools, a diplomatic training institute and a woman’s empowerment and training centre.

•“We are committed to taking care of the cause and well-being of Palestinian people,” Mr. Modi said.

•“Friendship between India and Palestine has stood the test of time. The people of Palestine have shown remarkable courage in the face of several challenges. India will always support Palestine’s development journey,” he said.

•“You have shown steely resolve to overcome [challenges] and advance despite instability and insecurity that threaten hard-fought gains,” he told the Palestinians. “We hope for peace and stability in Palestine. We believe a permanent solution is possible with dialogue.”

πŸ“° The Indian hand in a French satellite

•Vincent Lapeyrere’s day at work starts with a 200 m walk from his office to the ground station at the Meudon Observatory outside Paris. He has a 10-minute window to issue commands to the PicSat satellite as it flies over Paris, which it does four times a day. Mr. Lapeyrere and his team are trying to reduce PicSat’s spin by providing torque through on-board magnetorquers. Picsat is expected to become stable in two weeks, after which it will commence its mission of studying the star Beta Pictoris and try to detect the transit of its exoplanet Beta Pictoris b.

•It took the PicSat team just three years to design and build the nano satellite, which is made of three cubes, each just 10 cm in length, weighs no more than 3.5 kg and is equipped with a telescope which is 5 cm in diameter. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) played a pivotal role in the project’s quick execution as its PSLV launcher successfully placed the satellite in the helio-synchronous orbit (about 500 km in altitude), on January 12.

•Sylvestre Lacour, who is the principal investigator of the PicSat project, said they chose ISRO as they wanted the satellite in the orbit at the earliest. “ISRO has been very successful in deploying cubesats. Their schedule is fast and flexible, making it possible to get a slot at a short notice. And equally important, it is inexpensive,” he said. Besides PicSat, PSLV’s 42nd flight deployed 30 other satellites in space. Last February, ISRO managed to deploy a staggering 104 satellites in a single flight. They followed it up with a successful launch of 31 satellites in June. PicSat’s mission is expected to last for a year, during which time it will be continuously monitoring Beta Pictoris, which is located about 63 light years from the Earth.

Transit phenomenon

•Mr. Lapeyrere listed multiple reasons why this star was chosen. “It’s a very young star, only 20 million years old. There is a debris disk around the star where the planet Beta Pictoris b was discovered a few years ago. It’s a very young planet and is still in its formation phase. Studying this planet could improve our understanding of how planetary systems are formed,” he said. PicSat will gather information about the planet by observing the transit phenomenon, when the planet passes in front of the star resulting in the change of its luminosity. By using this method, researchers can derive information about the size, density and composition of the planet. However, the transit window is quite small.

•According to Mr. Lacour, it could happen any time. “The transit phenomenon occurs every 18 years. And viewing from earth, this phenomenon lasts for a few hours. We don’t know the exact timing of this transit. It is for this reason that the star system has to be monitored continuously from space,” Mr. Lacour said. Since PicSat flies over Paris for just half an hour every day, radio amateurs the world over have been encouraged to collaborate in the project. “Amateur astronomers with a radio antennae can receive the satellite data and relay it to the PicSat database. The more data we collect, the better,” system engineer Lester David explained.

•In order to stabilise the satellite, an electrical current is run through the copper coils using on-board batteries and a solar array. “The current creates a magnetic field around PicSat which is already inside Earth’s magnetosphere. The magnetic field created by the coils align with Earth’s magnetic field. That’s how we are keeping PicSat stable,” said Mr. David, who was at Sriharikota to witness the January 12 launch.

πŸ“° Modi treads cautiously on status of Jerusalem

In historic visit, PM avoids mention of Holy City while reaffirming India’s support for the Palestinian cause and calling for dialogue for permanent solution

•During his historic visit to Palestine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday reaffirmed India’s support for the Palestinian cause, and called for dialogue to find a permanent solution to the crisis, but stopped short of saying anything on the contested issue of the status of Jerusalem.

•Traditionally, Indian statements of support for Palestine have said that India backs an independent, sovereign state of Palestine within the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. Two years ago, when then President Pranab Mukherjee visited Jordan, Israel and Palestine, he said: “I reiterated India’s principled support to the Palestinian cause and called for a negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC [United Nations Security Council] Resolutions.”

•The Quartet Roadmap he referred to is the two-state plan suggested by the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the UN to resolve the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Manmohan’s stand

•In November 2013, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement on the occasion of the International Solidarity Day with the Palestinian People, reiterating India’s position. “India supports a negotiated resolution, resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders side by side and at peace with Israel...,” it read.

•However, in the statement issued by Prime Minister Modi after the India visit of Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017, there was no reference to Jerusalem. “[W]e hope to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel. I have reaffirmed our position on this to President Abbas during our conversation today,” the Prime Minister said on May 16, 2017.

•On Saturday in Ramallah, Mr. Modi has reiterated this line, with no direct reference either to the borders or to Jerusalem. The Prime Minister said India hoped to see an independent sovereign Palestine living in a peaceful environment, whereas President Abbas, in his statement, stressed achieving the national goals of Palestine “according to the two-state solution on the 1967 borders and the resolutions of international legitimacy. And Israel in peace and security, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.”

•Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has triggered an angry response from the Palestinians and criticisms from different parts of the world.

UN vote

•India voted against Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem move in the UN General Assembly in December 2017. After Mr. Trump’s move, the External Affairs Ministry issued a statement saying “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent”, but again without any reference to Jerusalem.

•Mr. Modi said nothing on Israel while giving the press statement in Ramallah.

πŸ“° Don’t deny benefits for want of Aadhaar: UIDAI

Warns of strict action against violators

•Aadhaar-issuing authority UIDAI on Saturday said that no essential service or benefit can be denied for want of the biometric national ID.

•In a statement, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) asked Government Departments and State administrations “to ensure that no essential service or benefit shall be denied to a genuine beneficiary for the want of Aadhaar, whether it is medical help, hospitalisation, school admission or ration through PDS.”

•“There are exceptions to the handling regulations issued by the UIDAI vide its circular dated 24th October 2017, which must be followed to make sure that no beneficiary is denied benefits for want of Aadhaar,” it said. The UIDAI said it has taken serious note of some of the reported cases where want of Aadhaar had resulted in the denial of essential services like hospitalisation.

•“While the real facts behind such claims of denial are being investigated, strict action will be taken in case denial has occurred,” it said.

πŸ“° ‘After GST, I see 2-3% savings in 3-5 years’

‘Today, we can manage inventory and production better’

•The logistics sector is one of the beneficiaries of the roll out of GST. In an interview, R. Dinesh , MD, TVS Logistics, said he is a lot more bullish and confident about growth in his business now than he was six months ago, as benefits of GST start to kick in. Excerpts:

How has the logistics sector fared post GST?

•Prior to GST, the Indian logistics sector was actually struggling to add value when compared to global peers. It was just seen as a labour contractor or a transporter and actually not getting the benefit of being a part of the supply chain. But that equation has changed now.

•Now, companies are looking to optimise their supply chain and are willing to outsource value-added planning to us. From a transporter’s point of view, small transporters can now work with third-party logistics providers and expand their fleet. This is happening at a faster pace now.

Now there are a lot of concerns about the e-way bill? Your views?

•The e-way bill is a fantastic system and once fully rolled out, you will have one single document which you can use across [multiple] modes. But as of now, there are challenges. We are given three user entries, but our company [makes] 3,000 trips across India per day.

•So, can we complete those with that set three entries and have capacity utilisation? Also, in case of an accident or breakdown, they say we have to go to the Chief Commissioner for approval and then be allowed to offload to another truck. The logic behind it is understandable, but for a company like us with so many trips, we don’t want to get stuck. At present, in case of accident or breakdown, we get an alternative truck to reach the spot in an hour.

•But a government authority will not be able to give approval in such a short time. The practical way is there needs to be a local authority or self certification, with a condition of penalty if you make a mistake.

What are the other positives for the sector?

•One another incidental benefit post GST is that they are trying to create a single nodal agency through the Special Secretary, Logistics.

•What that means is that earlier we were dealing with six ministries, like Railways, Highways, Shipping, Aviation etc. And each of them has its own requirement and paperwork. The Budget also mentioned that they are now creating a single portal for all logistics activities.

•Our hope is that this will create a situation were one single document goes across multimode. The Special Secretary, Logistics comes under the Commerce Ministry and he would see [to it] that the trade is facilitated.

What are the benefits seen from the GST so far?

•The quick benefits which we have seen are in terms of reduction in transportation time to a minimum of 8-9% and a maximum of 20% due to removal of checkposts and better tracking. Once fast tags are accepted in tolls, the transportation time would be further reduced.

•Today, you know the transportation time and you can better manage your inventory and production across sectors, which was earlier happening only in the automobile sector.

•Also, today you can set up big warehouses in huge consumption States and service the smaller ones from those, when compared to the previous practice of locating geography wise, resulting in cost savings. If logistics spend is at $50-70 billion, I see a cost saving of 2-3% in the next 3-5 years due to combination of various factors post GST.

How is TVS Logistics now positioned?

•We are cautiously positive to achieve profitable growth. We are hoping for high double-digit growth compared to low double-digit growth expectation 6-9 months ago. We are growing at more than 25% this year post GST and would be crossing $1 billion revenue this fiscal.

•Plan for an IPO isn’t in the too distant a future. We expect to add 3,000-4,000 people in India, and take our headcount to 18,000 in the next three years.

πŸ“° Bengal a hub for soaring trade in wild Indian birds

No end in sight even though a 1991 amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act prohibits trade in all Indian birds, except the house crow

•It was like a scene from Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s National Award-winning filmCharachar (‘Shelter of the Wings’, 1994), where the protagonist Lakhinder, played by Rajat Kapur, a bahelia (bird-catcher) by profession, releases his catch in the forest. Forest officials of the Kharagpur Divisional Office, too, had never witnessed anything like this before.

•In mid-January, hundreds of wild birds with bright plumage flew out of iron cages in a burst of colours into the freedom of the sky. There were so many of them that it took several minutes before the cages became empty. The release followed the highest ever seizure of wild birds in West Bengal in the preceding week. The birds were set free in the forest of Nayagram in the Pashchim Medinipur district, where such a large population of birds could be sustained in the wilderness.

•The seizure included 1,782 rose-ringed parakeets and plum-headed parakeets, 80 hill mynas and 892 munias. They were stuffed in cages and being transported to a local fair in two vehicles when they were intercepted by the forest officials.

•According to investigators, the birds were trapped along Uttar Pradesh’s border with Nepal. They were transported in short train journeys to ensure that the maximum number could be kept alive. Forest officials tracked them from the time they arrived in West Bengal’s Bardhaman Station, based on a tip-off.

•Last year, too, when a similar consignment arrived in West Bengal, the perpetrators managed to slip away. Wildlife officials were ready this time, and intercepted the cages en route to Dantan, a block bordering Odisha.

•“On January 13, we arrested five persons, all residents of West Bengal. Thankfully, most of the birds were alive and we released them at a spot where they could thrive,” said Arup Mukherjee, Divisional Forest Officer, Kharagpur.

•Agni Mitra, Regional Deputy Director-Eastern Region, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, says that residents of a village near the Bardhaman Station are in touch with bird-catchers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “Once these birds are brought to West Bengal, they are left for a brief period with shopkeepers, whom they callmahajans . Another group of hawkers takes these birds on credit from the shopkeepers and sells them in village fairs,” Mr. Mitra explained.

•He said this seizure of 2,754 birds was not the only one of its kind in recent times. Other seizures of wild Indian birds have been reported not only from Kolkata but also from market fairs in districts such as Tarakeshwar in Hooghly, Uluberia in Howrah and in Purba Medinipur.

Clandestine trade

•Experts observe that Kolkata, and West Bengal, have for the past several years been a hub for the trade in Indian wild birds despite laws prohibiting it. After a 1991 amendment to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, except for the house crow (Corvus splendens), which is listed as vermin, no Indian bird can be hunted, trapped, caged or traded.

•But in markets like Ghalif Street, Moulali and Boral across the north and south of Kolkata, and in the numerous haat s (local markets) in villages and suburbs, trade in wild Indian birds continues to flourish under the garb of trade in wild exotic birds, which is legally allowed.

•Abrar Ahmed, ornithologist and former consultant to NGO Traffic International’s Bird Trade Project, said that his studies over the past two decades had shown that of the 1,300 Indian species of birds, about 450 are being traded in domestic and international markets.

•Some of the most traded species are the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), Plum-headed Parakeet (P. cyanocephala) and Alexandrine parakeet (P. eupatria), followed by these passerines — black-headed munia (Lonchura malacca), red munia (Amandava amandava), white-throated munia (Lonchura malabarica) and hill myna (Granula religiosa).

•Mr. Ahmed pointed out that over the course of his studies on the Indian bird trade since 1992, he recorded 23 species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ‘Red List of Threatened Birds’, and 19 species listed as ‘Near Threatened’, being exploited for trade.

•While the focus is on protecting threatened species, many of the bird species that are being exploited do not fall in such categories, the bird expert said. He describes them ironically as “species of lesser gods”.

•Explaining how the bird trade racket has spread far and wide, Mr. Ahmed referred to a recent seizure at Lucknow, where about 800 wild birds were seized in the first week of January and seven persons were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police.

•He also pointed to another seizure in Nepal in October 23, 2017, where three Indian nationals and a Pakistani national were arrested with a large number of animals and birds. Kolkata is the end point for the trade.

•“In Kolkata, the birds are brought from the terai region and the Gangetic plains. The route goes from Lucknow to Patna and then to Kolkata, over short distances by train. Winter is a preferred time for the trade as the birds can undertake longer journeys without food and water, and can be stored in smaller spaces to avoid detection,” he said. Another route followed stretches from Assam to Siliguri to Kolkata.

•Since West Bengal shares a porous 2,216 km border with Bangladesh, the birds are easily taken to the neighbouring country, and smuggled all over the world via traders in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

‘Unending problem’

•A senior official of the West Bengal Forest Department, who has been involved in the seizure of thousands of birds and the arrest of over 100 persons for the crime, described it as an “unending problem” as long as there is demand for wild Indian birds in local markets.

•“People who buy these birds should realise that the common mithu (parakeet) is a protected species in India,” the officer said, emphasising that many people try to keep birds as pets without even realising that they are protected by law.

•While there are provisions in the law to prosecute the buyers of these birds, it has not been implemented and the law-enforcers are of the opinion that prosecuting the buyers would amount to taking the matter “a little too far”.

•The clandestine nature of trade in wild Indian birds makes it difficult to enumerate it. Mr. Ahmed estimates that 20,000-50,000 such birds are sold annually at each of the trading points.

•The researcher says that at least 5,000 families, including traditional trappers such as Mishrikars, Pathamies, Bahelias and Chirimars, depend on bird-catching for livelihood. Conservationists fear that any attempt to stop the trade in wild birds will not bear fruit in the long run without the rehabilitation of these communities.

πŸ“° The knowledge of our own finitude





Geography, or even nature, rarely preoccupies the modern mind except when disaster arrives home in the form of a fire or a tsunami

•California is a beached whale on the American oceanfront: wondrous, gigantic, and decaying at its edges. Natural life grows on its voluptuous body with little effort, even as the body politic fattens itself on a daily diet of ambition, technocracy and trade. It is almost a miracle that any government can presume to steward, far less govern, a State like California that stretches over ten latitude and longitude points. For, to govern suggests an ability to understand cause and effect, a talent to tease out linkages that are both obscure and self-evident, and the humility to recognise the limits of one’s own knowledge in the face of the unthinkable.

•And few States in America undergo periodic cataclysms as California does. In 2017, multiple fires burned more than 13 lakh acres. One of those incinerating furies, called the Thomas Fire, spanned nearly three lakh acres alone. For all of the technological miracles in Silicon Valley, the seeming helplessness of California (and the staggering persistence and valour of its firefighters) in the face of dry Santa Ana winds from its desert interiors, poor rains, the La NiΓ±a weather systems — all of which birth these infernos — is a reminder of how fragile human civilisation is in the face of nature’s caprice.

An empire of trees

•Ironically, these fires that destroy all signs of human civilisation begin in trees, which are California’s public treasures. For the human eye, notwithstanding the presence of basins, depressions, deserts, plateaus, mountains and snow-caked tips, much of California is an empire of trees. Shrubs, pines, conifers, evergreens, riparian, desert trees, grass, succulents — 4,500-7,000 native plants grow in California. Here too, however, much like Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’sMacbeth , forests are on the move as average temperatures rise and vegetation scrambles to survive.

•The most famous of California’s trees are the spectacular redwoods that rise out of its alluvial grounds and shoot up, like the ambition of its Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, into the skies. It is only on coming face-to-face with these giants that one realises that the word ‘tree’ itself is a compromise by which humans reduce a mighty assemblage of bark, stem, branches and leaves to a familiar expression. But nothing prepares one for the immensity of these arboreal beings that were probably around when the Buddha was a toddler in Kapilavattthu. One can’t but wonder if Vyasa had seen a California redwood, then perhaps Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita might have paused to reconsider before declaring: “Among trees, I am the Ashvattha (pipal tree).”

•When near one of these giants, one can only ask: where in the tree lies its ‘tree-ness’? The crown of the redwoods soaks in the moisture directly from passing clouds, while the lower reaches of the tree thrive amidst our ecologies and familiar earthworms. Along the way, these behemoths welcome interlopers, permanent residents, and refugees of nature: epiphytes, lichens, huckleberry afros, and even crustacean lifeforms only found in oceans. If different ends of the same structure live in different worlds, much like India, our nomenclatures merely function as adhesive labels that put together diversities of experience.

•Boxed within oceans, mountains, forests, and deserts, human life in California thrives. An elaborate network of interstate highways and side roads facilitates this primordial human instinct to explore. On these roads, the oceans seem far and forgotten and yet the Pacific hums its oceanic song. Its froth from the deep and terrifying depths washes the coast’s body relentlessly, diligently.

Making sense of it all

•On California’s unending and vast highways, it is tempting to think that we humans are in charge. Yet, the imperium of nature is not far. In 2017, many highways were set alight by forest fires. The remains of the oceans too surround the traveller in the form of boulders, shaved rock faces, and crystalline dust. But to see them all as part of a contiguous whole, one needs to learn to see anew.

•This is not easy. Nor is our vocabulary to understand the nature of man’s place in a constellation of forces adequate to the task. The language used by writers, including the great John McPhee, to describe geographies has a flavour of engineering textbooks. Terms like “sea floor spreading, crustal plate subduction, continental suturing” permeate this genre. These phrases convey a sense of precision and knowledge even if I often find myself struggling to make sense of it all. Geographical systems seem so terrifying in their consequence, so relentless in their march, so impervious to human presence. It is little surprise that geography, or even nature, rarely preoccupies the modern mind except when disaster arrives home in the form of a fire or a tsunami.

•Yet, as experiences from Fukushima or California’s wildfires attest, irrespective of our linguistic limitations or distractions, our societies rest precariously on the continued benevolence of nature’s forces. Despite such occasional reminders, our modern life and education still remain geared towards wilfully misreading our place in nature. Perhaps we do so, so that we may live yet another day without the anxiety of living with the knowledge of our own finitude.

πŸ“° Gene tweak may mean contraceptives for men

Findings from an animal study could lead to a new form of birth control

•A new finding by scientists at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad could pave the way for the development of a new type of contraceptive.

Enzyme role

•The study, conducted on mice, has found that the presence of an enzyme called IP6K1 played an important role in the formation of sperm cells in male mice.

•Sperm formation is a multi-step process. In one of the stages, the nucleus of the cell has to condense and become elongated, a process that requires expression of two key sperm-specific proteins called TNP2 and PRM2. The study has found that IP6K1 is required to ensure that these two sperm proteins get expressed properly. When the researchers knocked out the gene that produces IP6K1, they discovered that sperm proteins were getting synthesised prematurely and, as a result, sperm failing to develop completely.

•The leader of the study team, Dr. Rashna Bhandari, noted that the finding made possible the development of a new type of contraceptive, though it would take time, she cautioned.

•“We can now think of inhibiting IP6K1 to make men infertile. However, another paper from a U.S. group has shown that an existing IP6K1 inhibitor does not cause male mouse infertility. It is probably because the inhibitor does not cross the blood-testis barrier. So, to develop a contraceptive using our new knowledge, we will first have to develop a new inhibitor of IP6K1, and then test it in mice to see if it causes male infertility.”

•She also noted that there was a need to conduct more studies to understand the enzyme better. For instance, a Swedish group had, in 2007, shown that knocking out the IP6K1 gene reduced insulin secretion from the pancreas. “It is clear that we need to be extra cautious when we deal with this gene.”

Treating infertility

•The finding, she said, could also be looked at from the point of view of treatment for male infertility. “So far, there has been no report of any infertility in human males because of a lack or dysfunction of [the] IP6K1 enzyme. But, it is conserved in men also. We can perhaps screen infertility patients to see whether there was any loss or mutation of the enzyme and if it was causing the infertility. If that was so, then it may be possible to cure their infertility by merely adding back the enzyme to their developing sperm.”

•This study was conducted by a doctorate student, Aushaq Bashir Malla, who is under Dr. Bhandari’s guidance. The results have been published in the Journal of Cell Science . — India Science Wire

πŸ“° Neglected but treatable

•In the public health context, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) have been consistently and alarmingly under-emphasised despite being widespread among low-income populations in developing tropical regions (Africa, Asia, and the Americas). The diseases that are most prevalent in India include lymphatic filariasis, soil transmitted helminthiases, trachoma, visceral leishmaniasis, dengue, rabies, cysticercosis and Japanese encephalitis. India also bears a high burden of intestinal worm infections (hookworms, whipworms and Ascaris worms).

•Extensive activities under two significant public health campaigns will roll-out in February and address the problems of intestinal worms (or soil-transmitted helminth) and lymphatic filariasis. While on National Deworming Day (February 10) children between ages 1 to 19 through schools and anganwadi centres would have been dewormed in order to improve their nutritional status and well-being, the Lymphatic Filariasis Programme will reach out to those above two years, by using health workers across select endemic districts to administer anti-filarial drugs. Both programmes involve the distribution of drugs free of cost through periodic rounds of mass drug administration(MDA) and their effectiveness depends on when these drugs are consumed by the high-vulnerability population.

•Their success also depends on clear communication strategies as many a time the benefit of such programmes is not understood by many. In the case of the filariasis programme, MDA is needed to reduce infection in a community to levels below the threshold at which vectors cannot spread parasites from person to person. This happens only if a large part of the population, including those who have not contracted the disease, consumes the drugs.

The WASH strategy

•The potential of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) strategies, a critical component of prevention and care for all NTDs, has yet to be realised. Provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene is one of the five key interventions in the global NTD road map. However, the WASH component has received little attention; the potential to link efforts on WASH and NTDs has been untapped. Focussed efforts on WASH are a must especially in NTD control where transmission is closely linked to poor WASH conditions, examples being soil-transmitted helminthiasis, schistosomiasis, trachoma and lymphatic filariasis.

•Emerging evidence suggests that NTDs significantly impair response to standard childhood immunisations. Both antenatal and childhood parasitic infections have the ability to alter levels of protective immune response to routine vaccinations. Successful NTD programmes can prevent immunomodulation caused by parasitic antigens during pregnancy and early childhood and also improve vaccine efficacy.

•In the disease fight, several countries have made extraordinary progress; 20 countries and 499 million people were no longer in need of MDA for lymphatic filariasis, as of 2016, and 10 countries have now eliminated it as a public health problem across the Pacific-African regions ahead of the global target year of 2020. Lessons learnt from Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asian region are what can help India prioritise and intensify efforts to eliminate filariasis.

•On December 14, 2017, Uniting to Combat NTDs, a collective of dedicated partners working together to defeat 10 neglected tropical diseases, released its fifth report to highlight the progress made in the NTD fight. The report indicates the potential of an NTD-control programme that is community-based. It also looks at how it can provide a gateway to universal health coverage as it reaches marginalised populations through well-trusted health workers who provide quality, free-of-cost drugs to the population. India’s commitment towards NTD elimination is critical to meet the global target of elimination of intestinal worm infections and lymphatic filariasis by 2020.

πŸ“° IISc team identifies an early-stage biomarker for Alzheimer’s

Decrease in F-actin protein level causes early behavioural changes in mice

•Researchers at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have identified a potential biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease. The biomarker shows up very early in the disease process and well before clinical and even pathological manifestation of the disease. They also found that it is possible to reverse the disease process if identified early.

•Loss of dendritic spines from the surface of a nerve cell is already recognised as an early feature of Alzheimer’s. But the underlying mechanism behind this loss was not known. Now, a team led by Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath from the Centre for Neuroscience at IISc has deciphered it. The results were published inJournal of Neuroscience.

•Projections on the dendrites called spines grow or shrink in response to activity-dependent modification and correlates with normal memory or memory deficit in animal models.

•Filamentous actin (F-actin) is a cytoskeletal protein which is responsible for maintaining the shape of the spines. While F-actin is formed by polymerisation of monomeric globular-actin (G-actin), depolymerisation leads to loss of F-actin and, in turn, the loss of spines. F-actin is crucial for memory consolidation.

•“In mice that are genetically altered to have Alzheimer’s, there was decreased F-actin protein level and increased G-actin protein level in animals as young as one month,” says Reddy Peera Kommaddi, a DBT-Ramalingaswami Fellow, from the Centre for Neuroscience at IISc and first author of the paper. The change in the ratio of F-actin and G-actin led to loss of spines. The decrease in F-actin level and loss of spine thereof translated into memory deficit when the animals turned two months old.

•In contrast, the first signs of memory deficit in mice with Alzheimer’s is typically seen only when the animals are seven-eight months old. This is because the formation of protein clumps called amyloid plaques, which is one of the earliest clinical symptoms, happens at this stage.

Testing memory

•To test the role of F-actin in behaviour response, two-month-old mice were exposed to mild foot shocks when kept in a conditioning chamber to bring about contextual fear conditioning. While normal mice placed in the chamber the next day they tend to freeze in anticipation of a shock, mice with Alzheimer’s did not exhibit this behaviour. “The Alzheimer mice did not associate the aversive event [electric shock] with context but simply kept exploring the chamber,” says Smitha Karunakaran from the Centre for Brain Research at IISc and a coauthor of the paper.

•To test if decrease in F-actin protein and, in turn, the spine was responsible for deficit in memory a chemical was injected into Alzheimer mice to stabilise the level of F-actin. “A day after the injection, the F-actin level was restored to normal level and the Alzheimer mice showed increased freezing response just like healthy mice,” says Dr Karunakaran.

•The researchers went a step further to test the role of F-actin level in behaviour response by injecting a chemical into four-month-old normal mice. Since the chemical inhibits actin polymerisation, there was a decrease in the F-actin level. And the mice, though healthy, displayed significant decrease in freezing response, just like Alzheimer’s mice would behave.

•“These two experiments conclusively proved that loss in F-actin level leads to early behavioural changes that would eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Kommaddi.

•The team checked the level of F-actin levels in cortical brain tissue samples of human subjects who had Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment and normal cognition. There was “graded lowering” of F-actin levels from normal to mild cognitive to Alzheimer’s tissue samples.

•The correlation seen between mouse model and human disease indicates the potential to use F-actin levels as a biomarker.

πŸ“° Mitochondria: Immigrants that add power to the mother’s cells

Millions of years ago, the ‘purple bacterium’ immigrated to plant and animal cells to form the mitochondria

•Immigration is much in the news these days. But, go back to history, and we find that early humans started migrating ‘Out of Africa’ since about 3 million years ago. As territories, communities and nations became established, movement from a ‘foreign’ place or group into such ‘nations’ became the basis of accepting or denying entry. This depended on whether the migrants added ‘value’ to the locals or otherwise.

•In biology, this process has been on even at the single-cellular levels, over 2.5 to 3 billion years ago — and continues even today. Leave alone infection by pathogens; there have been helpful ones too. Two outstanding examples of helpful immigration that happened during those early years are chloroplasts and mitochondria. The chloroplasts are neatly packaged mini-cells which come with their own genetic make- up, and they have the ability to absorb sunlight and use it to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide and water to produce the sugar glucose and the gas oxygen. They appear to have arisen from even more ancient cells called ‘cyanobacteria’ (3.5 billion years ago), and have migrated from there to plant cells. This immigration led to what is called the ‘oxygen revolution’, through which the air surrounding the earth became over 20% rich in oxygen ( pranavayu - a gas without which we cannot live).

Powerhouses and solar panels

•At about the same time, or a bit later, another ancient life form, derived from ‘the purple bacterium’, migrated to both plant and animal cells. This is the mitochondrion. Mitochondria do the reverse; they use oxygen and enhance the metabolic energy production of their ‘host’ cells by as much as tenfold. (For example, when you exercise rapidly and are short of breath, each molecule of glucose in your cells generates three molecules of lactic acid, and produce three units of energy in the process. But when you now take a deep breath and inhale oxygen, the immigrant mitochondria in your body cells break down the accumulated lactic acid to produce carbon dioxide, water and 30 units of energy). Mitochondria are thus power houses in cells, as chloroplasts are solar panels of energy in plants.

•Cellular immigrants such as these two are welcome in cells and have been given permanent residence permits therein. But they bring their own genomes through which they produce progeny, and live in ghettos called organelles in the cells, offering power and prosperity to their hosts. All animals, plants and fungi have accommodated mitochondria in their cells. The number of mitochondria in a cell varies depending on the role of the cell. Muscle cells, which have high energy needs have large numbers of mitochondria in them, while red blood cells whose job is just to transport oxygen have none.

•Given all this importance of mitochondria, it comes as a surprise to learn that we humans inherit our mitochondria only from the mother and none at all from the father. In other words, it is the mother who provides her progeny the Power-Pack that her children’s body cells need. So it is in plants too; it is the female that provides the chloroplasts. This too is a process that has been conserved evolutionarily from worms, fruit flies, animals and humans, and is referred to as ‘uniparental inheritance’.

•But how and why does this happen? After all the egg cell is fertilized by the sperm cell, and both of them carry their own mitochondria. And as the sperm cell enters the egg cell, its mitochondria are eliminated, and why? This is a puzzle that has bothered scientists, and several suggestions have come about recently. Some have proposed that mitochondrial DNA is inherently more prone to damage than nuclear DNA, and that if the introduced mitochondria are avoided or deleted, one can make do with the maternal mitochondria, which can be multiplied as the embryo forms and develops. Dr. William Bridy of Ohio State University, USA, who has long studied this problem, suggests that such uniparental inheritance of mitochondria (and chloroplasts too) reduces the spread of parasites that lurk around in the cytoplasm, and also errors through what is termed as ‘selfish’ DNA (keep on making more copies of its segments, see his review in PNAS 92, 11331-38, 1995). Likewise, Dr. J.M. Cummins of Murdoch University in Australia suggests that doing away with the mitochondrial DNA contained in the sperm helps in preventing the inheritance of damaged or mutated DNA, occurring due to free-radical based damage (Hum. Reprod. 2000; July 15, Suppl. 2:92-101). And the review by Greiner et al. (Bioessays 2015. 37(1) p.80-94) posits that such removal of sperm-based DNA helps in avoiding competition between organelles, and also in avoiding negative interactions between the organelle and nuclear genomes).

•The most recent paper by Dr. Ding Xue of the University of Colorado, USA and colleagues ( Science 2016 July 22; 353 (6297) p.394-399) uses the transparent worm C. elegans and shows that the paternal mitochondria rapidly lose their inner membrane when entering the egg cell, releasing an enzyme that chops up the DNA therein, and which also aids in the maternal garbage disposal (called autophagy and proteasome) machinery. The last word is not said yet, but it does appear that the mother cell decides that it is best to make do with what it has, and not seek the aid of damage-prone external mitochondria for the job ahead. Mother knows best!

πŸ“° IGIB researchers partially reverse a rare disorder

The syndrome also affects about one in one lakh people, causing a range of defect

•Researchers at Delhi’s Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) have for the first time used zebra fish to model the rare genetic disorder — Rubinstein Taybi Syndrome (RSTS) — seen in humans. They have also used two small molecules to partially reverse some of the defects caused by the disorder in zebrafish, thus showing them to be an ideal animal model for screening drug candidates. There is currently no cure or treatment for the disorder.

•The Rubinstein Taybi Syndrome has a frequency of about one in one lakh people, and causes intellectual disability, growth retardation (short stature), craniofacial deformities, heart defects and broad thumbs and toes. The results were published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Basis of Disease.

Close to human genome

•Since zebrafish genome has very close similarity to human genome and the embryonic developmental is very similar in the two, the team led by Dr. Chetana Sachidanandan at IGIB went about checking if EP300, one of the two genes that cause the disorder is present in the fish and if mutations in this gene result in a RSTS-like disease in fish.

•Using chemicals, the researchers inhibited the activity of the protein Ep300 to see if this resulted in the manifestation of the disorder in the brain, heart, face and pectoral fins (equivalent to forearm in humans). “Like in the case of humans, the same organs were affected in the fish when the functioning of the protein was stopped. This helped in confirming that the protein in question does the same functions in fish and humans,” she says.

•Since zebrafish commonly has two copies of many human genes, the researchers first checked if one or both the genes were functional and equivalent to the human gene that causes the disorder. “We found Ep300a gene was active and functional while Ep300b was not,” says Prof. Tapas K. Kundu from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru, the other corresponding author. The Ep300a gene is responsible for producing a protein (Ep300) that opens up the DNA.

•“The protein Ep300 is evolutionarily conserved from fish to humans. Though the Ep300 gene has been earlier identified in fish, its function was not known,” says Prof. Kundu.

Reversal of effects

•Like in the case of fish treated with chemicals manifesting the disorder, fish mutants that lacked the Ep300a gene too exhibited defects very similar to those seen in humans.

•“When we introduced excess amount of a tiny portion of the Ep300a protein in the mutants, the craniofacial deformities became less severe [mutants had severed craniofacial deformities] and pectoral fins in the fish became normal,” she says.

•But neuronal defects were not reversed, even partially. “It might be because only a portion of the protein was put into the fish. Probably, that potion isn’t sufficient to compensate for the loss of the whole protein,” she explains.

•“It’s proof-of-concept that just a piece of the protein is sufficient to reverse some defects, even if only partially, in zebrafish,” Dr. Sachidanandan says.

•Alternatively, the researchers used two small molecules to reverse the defects. If the protein Ep300 is responsible for opening the DNA, there are other proteins that are responsible for closing the DNA.

•The two molecules were found from a screen of compounds well known for their ability to inhibit proteins responsible for closing the DNA.

•Like in the case when excess amount of Ep300 protein was introduced, both the molecules could partially restore facial defects but not the neuronal defects.

•“Introducing excess amount of a portion of the ep300 protein showed greater rescue of deformities than the small molecules,” says Aswini Babu from IGIB and first author of the paper. “But rescuing the deformities using small molecules is a relatively easier and better option.”

πŸ“° Skewed sex ratios induce same-sex behaviour in pigeons

Numerous records of such bonding exist in nature

•It’s all about making the best of a bad job: if there is a paucity of males, female rock pigeons can form long-lasting, same-sex relationships to bring up their chicks, find scientists. Such female pairs fare no differently than female–male pairs, and better than single females, in bringing up their brood.

•Numerous records of same-sex sexual behaviour exist in the natural world and more than 130 bird species have been recorded displaying such behaviour, ranging from courtship displays and copulation to establishing nesting territories. Theories put forward to explain this include ‘social glue’ (where engaging in same-sex bonds establishes strong social relationships), ‘alloparenting’ (that females have a fluid sexuality that helps them form same-sex bonds if their partners die or leave, which is useful to bring up offspring) and the ‘prison effect’ (removing one sex causes the rest to engage sexually with members of its own sex).

•A team of scientists from Poland tested what would happen if males or females are removed from populations of rock (feral) pigeons, a monogamous species (which has only one mate at a time) that is also found in India.

•In their study published in Scientific Reports, the scientists detail how they established three feral pigeon colonies between 2007 and 2009. From the first colony, they removed several males that had already paired with females. This skewed the sex ratio towards females, creating not just the existing female–male (f–m) pairs but also five female–female (f–f) pairs and 14 single females. Males from the f–m pairs fertilised the single females and those in the f–f pairs.

•The team found that egg incubation time, development of chicks and numbers of hatchlings of f–f pairs was almost the same as f–m pairs, while single females did not do as well.

•The removal of females from the second colony created only two short and unstable male–male pairs, which did not build nests or adopt offered eggs. From the third colony, when the team removed females whose fledglings were growing, males displayed mating behaviour towards their offspring.

•“Our results show that a shortage of males evokes same-sex sexual behaviour in females in an effort to adapt and compensate for the lack of males,” writes lead author Łukasz Jankowiak (University of Szczecin) in an e-mail to The Hindu.According to Jankowiak, both alloparenting in females and prison effects in both females and males explain same-sex sexual behaviour in this case.

πŸ“° IACS’ new source of white light

what

•Now, pure white light can be produced using zinc, which is usually used to protect iron from rusting and in making brass.

•The most commonly used method of producing white light is by mixing three primary colour–emitting phosphors in a proportionate composition. The existing methods of white-light production are energy-intensive and involve a long process.

•But the new LED device requires only a single active layer of zinc-based metal–organic framework to get perfect white light under UV-excitation. And synthesis of the zinc framework is easy and highly stable and is not energy-intensive.

•Scientists from Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Kolkata, synthesised the zinc-framework and the results were published inJournal of Materials Chemistry C.

•“Zeolite, a rare earth mineral, is also used for producing white light. But this is not environment-friendly. Our LED device uses zinc, one of the most abundant metals on earth, to do the work,” explains Shyamal K Saha, Department of Materials Science at the Institute and corresponding author of the paper.

•For the LED fabrication, indium tin oxide–coated glass was used as anode and vacuum evaporated aluminium as cathode. “The zinc-based framework is used as the active layer in which electrons are recombined to produce white light. The precursor materials used to make the LED are easily available and very much cost effective,” he adds. By checking with the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) standards, the researchers found that the emission was very close to that of ideal white light.

•“The molecules were found to be very stable, and the whole crystalline network was stable up to 500 degree Celsius” says Saptasree Bose, Research Associate and co-author of the paper.

•While commercially available white LEDs show slightly higher blue emission when compared with two other primary colours, the new white LED emits three primary colours proportionally to get perfect white light.

•“We calculated the energy levels and the origin of photoluminescence. Emissions were obtained at three different wavelengths (384nm, 468nm, 570nm) under UV-excitation,” says Tuhina Mondal, PhD scholar at the institute and first author of the paper. “The final LED requires 8V, which is a bit higher than commercially available LEDs. We are working to minimise this.”



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