International issues

13th EU India Summit

 

Evolution of India EU relationship

  • India-EU relations date to the early 1960s, with India being amongst the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community.
  • A cooperation agreement signed in 1994 took the bilateral relationship beyond trade and economic cooperation.
  • At the 5th India-EU Summit held at The Hague in 2004, the relationship was upgraded to a ‘Strategic Partnership’.
  • The two sides adopted a Joint Action Plan in 2005 (which was reviewed in 2008) that provided for strengthening dialogue and consultation mechanisms in the political and economic spheres, enhancing trade and investment, and bringing peoples and cultures together.
  • The first India-EU Summit took place in Lisbon in 28 June 2000 and marked a watershed in the evolution of the relationship.
  • Since then, twelve annual Summits have been held, the last one in New Delhi on 10 February 2012. The 12th Summit was the first Summit to be held in India after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.  The two sides reviewed bilateral relations as well as exchanged views on regional and global issues.
  • The 13th Summit could not be held in 2013. India and the EU also interact regularly at the Foreign Minister level.

India EU trade

  • The EU as a bloc of 28 countries is India’s largest regional trading partner while India was the EU’s 9th largest trading partner in 2014.
  • Our bilateral trade in goods in 2014 was €72.52 billion as compared to €72.66 billion in 2013
  • Indian exports to the EU amounted to €37.07 billion during 2014 while India’s imports from EU in 2014 stood at €35.45 billion
  • The trade balance in goods which turned in India’s favour in 2013, continued to remain in India’s favour by €1.62 billion in 2014
  • India-EU bilateral trade in services was €23.7 billion in 2013 with trade being in favour of India
  • The EU is one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for India.
  • The most important EU countries for FDI inflows into India in 2013 were the Germany, UK, Italy, Sweden and Belgium.
  • India and the EU are in the process of negotiating a bilateral Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) since 2007 which will significantly enhance the commercial relationship once implemented.

Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement

  • On 28th June 2007, India and the EU began negotiations on a broad-based  (BTIA) in Brussels, Belgium.
  • India and the EU expect to promote bilateral trade by removing barriers to trade in goods and services and investment across all sectors of the economy.
  • Both parties believe that a comprehensive and ambitious agreement that is consistent with WTO rules and principles would open new markets and would expand opportunities for Indian and EU businesses. 
  • The negotiations cover
  1. Trade in Goods,
  2. Trade in Services,
  3. Investment,
  4. Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,
  5. Technical Barriers to Trade,
  6. Trade Remedies,
  7. Rules of Origin,
  8. Customs and Trade Facilitation,
  9. Competition,
  10. Trade Defence, 
  11. Government Procurement,
  12. Dispute Settlement,
  13. Intellectual Property Rights & Geographical Indications,
  14. Sustainable Development.  
  • So far, 15 rounds of negotiations have been held alternately at Brussels and New Delhi. The last meeting was held in the week of 13th May, 2013 in New Delhi. 
  • The contours of the discussions had recently been widened by the EU to involve investments, not just trade in goods and services, converting a free trade agreement into a broader scope trade and investment agreement. 
  • Obtaining greater access to the market for services in the European Union (EU) is key for the progress of the Broadbased Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) between the EU and India

When and Where

  • Brussels on March 30.

Benefits for India

  • In a global economic climate of falling demand and competitive currency devaluations a free trade agreement with the EU would be beneficial
  • The textile industry was among those that would be benefitted

Issues

  • India would also take up the issue of market access for its services in the EU.
  • India has not been granted “data secure” status by the EU, and this has hampered the progress of negotiations around the liberalisation of trade in services in the BTIA talks. Being considered ‘data secure’ is crucial for a number of services especially in the IT and ITES sectors.

MEA mulls evacuation of Indians in Libya

  • Days after the death of a Kerala nurse and her child in western Libya, a senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official told that at least 1,800 Indians are still in the country and may need to be rescued through an emergency evacuation soon.
  • Discussions about an emergency plan were prompted by the March 4 attack in Yemen which left one Indian nun killed and a priest missing and the March 25 mortar attack in Libya which killed the nurse and her child.
  • Despite several rounds of negotiations with their suspected IS captors, the government has been unable to track down two professors from Sirte University kidnapped in August 2015.
  • Evacuation from Libya will be challenging especially since the Indian embassy in Tripoli has been relocated and has been operating out of the Tunisian resort city of Djerba, with a skeleton staff.
  • To add to the crisis, the airspace over Tripoli was closed on Tuesday. In 2011, India had managed to evacuate 15,000 nationals flying dozens of Air India flights and sending a naval warship to rescue them. In April 2015, India carried out “Operation Raahat” to evacuate 5,000 citizens and foreigners from Yemen. Diplomats told The Hindu that a similar plan may be used in Libya.
  • Adding to the pressure, Libya appears to be headed for a major battle between three different contesting governments and the Islamic State fighters. The rival governments of Tobruk and Tripoli had been fighting for months. But now the situation is more violent as a third front backed by the U.N. — National Unity government, has been formed which has threatened to break into Tripoli, creating a bigger showdown

Robots used to recreate threatened monuments

  • Cultural organisations have been working to create precise three-dimensional digital models of the threatened heritage monuments in Palmyra, Syria, in case the originals are damaged beyond repair.
  • Near the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, robots are using the models to carve a 20-foot-high scale reproduction of one of Palmyra’s most famous ancient monuments: a Roman triumphal arch that Islamic State militants razed last year.
  • When finished next month, the 12-ton replica is to be temporarily installed at Trafalgar Square in London, with plans to bring it to New York later in the year.
  • It was important to send a “powerful message” to those intent on destroying world heritage sites.
  • Every time we resurrect from the rubble one of these monuments, it undercuts the message of fear and ignorance that these people are trying to spread
  • The Romans built the original triumphal arch in the second century to celebrate a victory over the Persians.
  • The reproduction was created from a 3D computer model generated from dozens of photographs of the arch taken by archaeologists, tourists and other visitors to Palmyra before the Islamic State captured the city

‘Capacity crisis in Indian Air Force’- U.S. expert

  • A report by Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Named – “Troubles, they come in Battalions: The Manifest Travails of the Indian Air Force,”

What does it say

  • The report  is a sharp analysis of the current state of the IAF’s preparedness to face down threats from potentially troublesome neighbours. It finds the country’s aerial fighting force to be inadequate on a number of parameters.
  • There is threat to India’s air superiority over its rapidly modernising rivals, China and Pakistan. This is due to Indian Air Force’s (IAF)
  1. falling end strength
  2. problematic force structure,
  3. troubled acquisition and development program[me]s
  • Air dominance is vital for India if it is to have deterrence stability in southern Asia and for preserving the strategic balance in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Some parameters include

  • Fighter force – The IAF’s force  is weaker than the numbers suggest, and at nominally 36.5 squadrons, it is well short of its sanctioned strength, and many of its frontline aircraft are obsolete.
  • China and Pakistan have apparently fielded close to 750 advanced air defence or multi-role fighters against the IAF’s 450-odd equivalent. By 2025, China may well be in a position to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated aircraft against India. Pakistan may be able to deploy 100 to 200 advanced fighters.
  • With India facing this regional threat matrix IAF’s desires for 42–45 squadrons by 2027, which is the equivalent of around 750–800 aircraft, is “compelling”, yet the likelihood of reaching this goal is “poor”.
  • The main barrier to embarking on a successful acquisition and modernisation drive is the fact that the IAF is stymied by serious constraints on
  1. India’s defence budget,
  2. the impediments imposed by the acquisition process,
  3. the meagre achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations,
  4. the weaknesses of the higher defence management system, and
  5. India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defence production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals.
  • Earlier this month, a rare offer to produce F-16 fighters on Indian soil may be coming from Lockheed Martin. If the IAF chooses to avoid this approach, it may have to continue relying on the Sukhoi and MiG platforms and the expected incoming 36 Rafale aircraft, and then cover any shortfall in capability with the indigenous Tejas.
  • This approach may make sense from a cost perspective in that India could save money for a probable future purchase of the F-35. However, it may also slow India’s progress in building up its security posture in the manner envisioned by the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, under which another 90 advanced fighters are still required.
  • Technical shortcomings- In the context of the Tejas, the Su-30 acquisitions and the PAK-FA co-development programmes, the Carnegie report is clear in identifying technical shortcomings, and notes that “all three tiers of the IAF are currently in trouble”.
  • The report urges India to be “cautious about expanding the Tejas acquisition beyond six squadrons and consider enlarging the MMRCA component with the cheapest fourth-generation-plus Western fighter available”.
  • It also says that India should seek to expand its investments in advanced munitions “while being realistic about its domestic capacity to produce sophisticated combat aircraft”.

Myanmar’s slow, incomplete transition to democracy

When a government led by the National League for Democracy is sworn in on Wednesday, it will mark only progress and not complete change

  • These were the  comments by the country’s Senior General, Min Aung Hlaing over the weekend. His remarks confirmed that when a National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government is sworn in on Wednesday, it would only mark progress towards a predominantly civilian government, not an establishment of full democracy.

Role of armed forces here on

  • During the transition to civilian rule, the military was Myanmar’s sole unifying force and protector of the Constitution.
  • Myanmar’s constitutional arrangement- representatives of the armed forces will continue to retain three important portfolios in the Cabinet — home, defence and border affairs.
  • Of these, the first mentioned is particularly significant, as it is not only responsible for maintaining peace and internal security, but all civil servants, right down to district level, report to it.
  • If they so desire, the armed forces could indirectly “impede implementation of policies” of ministries being administered by the NLD.

Evolution of democracy

  • After decades of junta regimes since 1962, Myanmar has undergone a steady transformation since 2011, thereby emerging from isolation to a budding acceptance by the international community.
  • The military refused to recognise the NLD’s triumph in the 1990 elections; instead it placed the Nobel Prize winning Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated icon of Myanmar’s freedom movement against Britain, General Aung San, under house arrest.
  • In 2010, however, General Thein Sein, switching from khakis to civvies, formed a political party — United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — to set up an armed forces-approved, reformist government a year later.
  • In 2012, he granted Ms. Suu Kyi and some of her colleagues entry into Parliament in carefully calibrated by-elections.
  • The NLD was required to win a minimum of 67 per cent of seats in the union legislature to earn the right to form a government. In the event, in what can be called a rousing triumph, it captured 75 per cent of the seats.
  • Ms. Suu Kyi, who partly grew up in Delhi, where her mother Khin Kyi was Myanmar’s Ambassador, married an Oxford academic, now deceased. This resulted in her two sons adopting British nationality.
  • To ostensibly deny her the post of head of government and state, the armed forces framed a clause in the country’s Constitution which debars a person with foreign children from holding such office. So the administration spearheaded by the NLD has an economist and close associate of Ms. Suu Kyi, Htin Kyaw, as President-elect, not Ms. Suu Kyi herself
  • And this time, the military permitted Daw Suu — as she is popularly addressed — to take over the reins of power in the realms of economic development and external affairs.
  • While this has not been officially announced, it appears to be an open secret that Ms. Suu Kyi may control as many as four departments in the government — foreign affairs, President’s office, education and energy & electric power.

Criticism for NLD

  • At the same time, Ms. Suu Kyi’s choice of Finance and Commerce Ministers have given rise to controversy. Both are said to have fake degrees from American universities.
  •  NLD’s lack of information about the nominees’ backgrounds is also criticised. Its said that they should have looked for ability and qualifications, rather than appointing people close to the leadership.
  • Its also indicated that India had played a helpful behind-the-scenes role in recommending the NLD to take control of “communication” by assuming charge of the ministry of information. This will be headed by a former journalist, Pe Myint.

India China

  • Myanmar is being as a battleground between the giants, India and China.
  • India pursued a principled and hard-line approach towards the junta under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but without benefit. In fact, that approach consolidated cooperation between China and Myanmar to aid and abet separatists in India’s Northeast.
  • Therefore, the tough line was reversed by Premier P.V. Narasimha Rao as a component of his “Look East” policy. Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in 2012. Narendra Modi followed suit in 2014.
  • Myanmar’s engagement with China expanded explosively during the Cold War following economic sanctions by the West. Consequently, New Delhi is far behind Beijing vis-à-vis investment and trade.
  • However, New Delhi has been fighting back under the Rao doctrine, with extension of aid and soft credit to the tune $2 billion and trade rising to $2.5 billion in the current financial year.
  • Pertinently, Ms. Suu Kyi is on record as stating: “Myanmar can play an important role in improving ties between India and China”. Time will tell whether this comes true.

Nuclear safety, terror to be in focus as PM plans three-nation tour

India’s agenda at the fourth Nuclear Security Summit (NSS 2016) in Washington 

  • Will push for a global initiative against nuclear terrorism.
  • To safeguard the world from nuclear terrorism, India will ask for institutional follow-up through institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations, Interpol, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)
  • Need to end the nexus between state sponsors of terror and nuclear terrorism. India has often called for measures against Pakistan for proliferation of nuclear materials, especially during the tenure of its former nuclear programme chief A.Q. Khan.
  • Will also circulate a national plan and progress report covering the measures taken by India to prevent nuclear terrorism on the Indian soil.

Nuclear Security Summit (NSS)

  • The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) is a world summit, aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism around the globe.
  • The first summit was held in Washington, D.C. on April 12–13, 2010. The second summit was held in Seoul, South Korea in 2012. The third summit was held inThe Hague, the Netherlands on March 24–25, 2014. The fourth summit will be held in Washington, D.C. on March 31-April 1, 2016
  • Under the NSS process, countries work to improve their nuclear security on the basis of the Washington Work Plan, which contains numerous measures and action points. In Seoul a number of additional action points were formulated and set down in the Seoul Communiqué.
  • The NSS process is ongoing, and since 2009 has required world leaders and diplomats to devote extra attention to the issue of nuclear security. Extensive consultations are held in the run-up to every summit.

Achievements of NSS

  • Not only has the NSS raised awareness about the threat of nuclear terrorism, but its scenario-based threat analysis has led to the personal involvement of political leaders of major countries.
  • The idea of “house gifts” or “gift basket” were excellent ways of getting countries to make pledges in the area of nuclear security.  These were basically unilateral commitments made by individual countries (hence, ‘gifts’) in the area of nuclear security.  These have included pledges such as a group of countries coming together on nuclear smuggling, reduction or freeing up of Highly Enriched Uranium, transport security, forensics in nuclear security, strengthening radiological security, among others.
  • These have improved the safety and security policies and practices while strengthening transparency and confidence among the global nuclear community members.
  • India’s gift basket to set up a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP) went a long a way in boosting the global confidence about India’ nuclear security approach.
  • The NSS also became an ideal platform for countries to share their best practices and countries have found it useful to learn from each other’s experiences.
  • Moreover, 15 MT of highly enriched uranium (HEU) has been down-blended to low-enriched uranium, while 24 countries have agreed to give up their stocks of HEU thanks to the NSS process.

Criticism of NSS

  • With the process limited to non-military purposes, 83 per cent of nuclear material is outside its ambit.
  • Despite being projected as one of its initial goals, the NSS has not been able to amend the IAEA’s convention on nuclear safety.
  • That there is no legally binding outcome at the end of six years of the NSS process is seen as a major drawback. The NSS has, instead, focused on asking countries to tighten their national laws, rules and capabilities on nuclear security. This has meant that military facilities are treated as national responsibilities and dealt with as per international obligations.
  • The process is yet to get institutionalised and thus the fear that the forthcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington will be the last one.
  • The fact that it has been tied to a particular US administration has also been a weakness.
  • In addition, the lack of an overarching conclusion or declaration and the fact that this is not tied to any existing multilateral institutions such as the UN could see this process end.

NSS 2016

  • This year’s summit will be attended by 53 states and four global institutions, which cover 98 per cent of the nuclear material on the planet. Iran and North Korea are not invited, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will stay away due to his differences with Obama over Ukraine.
  • The current edition will review the work done on nuclear security over the last six years.

NSS and India

  • India has played an active role in these summits and made a voluntary contribution of $1 million to the Nuclear Security Fund.
  • New Delhi has also established a Global Centre of Excellence for Nuclear Energy Partnership, where more than a dozen national and international training programmes have been conducted so far.
  • Delhi has worked hard on the nuclear diplomatic agenda, which aims to establish India as a responsible nuclear-weapons state and ensure India’s participation in civilian international nuclear trade.
  • India’s interests at the NSS lie in ensuring that all nuclear materials and facilities — in India and its neighbourhood — are subjected to the highest levels of security to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.
  • This edition of the NSS offers Modi another opportunity to pursue purposeful nuclear diplomacy.
  • Nuclear security has concerned Indian political leadership and policy makers for a long time. Nevertheless, India’s policy attention on the subject is hardly known to the outside world. Therefore, if India were to take a leadership role on the nuclear security, it could be very beneficial.  It will have an important bearing on India’s efforts to get integrated into the global non-proliferation architecture.
  • India’s accession issues are not technical – India’s export control lists are more or less in sync with the control lists maintained by the global technology control regimes, which is the only real technical issue involved.  As far as the technical parametres are concerned, India has totally streamlined its control lists (items that are controlled for exports) for the NSG and MTCR.  On the Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group, there are certain gaps but still the problems faced by India are not so much related to these discrepancies but are more political in nature.  Therefore, New Delhi needs to contemplate measures that would address the political perception problem.  The NSG’s plenary meeting is to take place in June 2016 and the NSS presents an opportune moment to take some concrete steps.

The caveman’s best friend?

  • Hunters searching for mammoth tusks in northeast Russia in 2011 were drawn to a steep riverbank by a deposit of ancient bones. To their astonishment, they discovered an Ice Age puppy’s snout peeking out from the permafrost.
  • Five years later, a pair of puppies perfectly preserved in the region of Yakutia and dating back 12,460 years has mobilised scientists across the world.

Link to domestication

  • “To find a carnivorous mammal intact with skin, fur and internal organs — this has never happened before in history. And the discovery could contribute to the lively scientific debate over the origin of domesticated dogs.
  • A preliminary look at the mammoth remains also found at the dig suggested some had been butchered and burned, hinting at the presence of humans.
  • It remains to be seen, however, whether the puppies were domesticated or wild.
  • The answer can only be determined by reconstructing their genomes, which would take at least a year.
  • “Thus far, the lineages of wolves that likely gave rise to dogs have not yet been discovered and it’s possible that these puppies could be on that lineage, which would be very exciting,
  • What makes the dog particularly intriguing is that it managed to become “man’s best friend” even before humans became settled farmers.
  • It is still unclear whether dogs were domesticated in one place or in several places independently, and whether the process started when humans took in cubs or whether wolves themselves gradually drifted to human sites in search of food.

Anthropocene era set in

  • The results, found in a new research. are published in the journal Earth’s Future in London
  • The impact that human beings have made on the Earth in terms of production and consumption of natural resources has formed a ‘striking new pattern’ in the planet’s global energy flow
  • It showed definite signs that human beings have permanently changed the planet and have triggered Anthropocene — an era where humans dominated Earth’s surface geology.

Characterstics of the era

  • mainly characterised by the patterns of human production and consumption .
  • Human beings have seized something like one quarter of the net primary biological production of the planet.
  • Humans are increasing productivity well above natural levels – by the following processes
  1. by digging phosphorus out of the ground
  2. by fixing nitrogen out of the air to make fertilizers;
  3. by exploiting hundreds of millions of years worth of stored carbon-based energy, .
  • This refashioning of the relationship between Earth’s production and consumption is leaving signals in strata now forming, and this helps characterise the Anthropocene as a geological time unit

Syrian forces retake Palmyra, throw out IS

  • Syrian troops recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State and pledged to build on the victory with an advance against other jihadist strongholds.
  • President Bashar Al-Assad hailed the victory as an “important achievement and fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism.”
  • The Army said pro-government forces had cleared IS fighters from the UNESCO world heritage site, where the jihadists sparked a global outcry with the systematic destruction of treasured monuments.
  • The northern city of Raqqa is the IS’s main Syrian bastion and the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor is another key stronghold.

Palmyra

Palmira
Palmira before ISIS occupation
  • Palmyra is an ancient Semitic city in present-day Syria.
  • Archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic period and the city was first documented in the early second millennium BC.
  • Palmyra changed hands on a number of occasions between different empires, before becoming a subject of the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
  • An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.
  • Isis seized Palmyra in May 2015. The fall of the city gained worldwide attention as it hosts some of the most well-preserved ruins of antiquity. As well as destroying the iconic temples of Bel and Baalshamin and the Arch of Triumph, the group looted graves and used the amphitheatre to stage executions.
  • The first images to emerge from the ancient city of Palmyra after Syrian regime forces expelled Islamic State fighters have shown large swaths of destruction but also suggest that several important archaeological sites are intact.
  • Photographs of the Unesco world heritage-listed citadel, known as “the bride of the desert”, taken following the recapture of the city by Bashar al-Assad’s troops show the damage made by Isis during its 10-month occupation.
  • The extremist group had destroyed some of Palmyra’s most treasured artefacts, including the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph.
  • However, some of Palmyra’s ruins appear to have survived, including the Agora and the celebrated Roman theatre.

Japan says India’s nuclear MoU “legally binding”

  • India had committed to adhere to the “control of nuclear material, traceability [of nuclear fuel] and consequence in case of a nuclear accident” under the memorandum of understanding (MoU) on civil nuclear cooperation with Japan signed during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in 2015.

Issues that may arise out of the MoU

  • Though the bilateral agreement leaves out India’s military nuclear programme, experts warn that the agreed principles impinge on India’s independent nuclear programme as they imply intrusive inspection of civilian nuclear reactors as warranted under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
  • The principles of traceability and control over nuclear material are highly intrusive measures that will be used by the Japanese to trace the nuclear fuel that Japanese-origin reactors sold to India will contain.
  • Conditions on “traceability of nuclear fuel and safety of nuclear material” do not figure in the deals India concluded with the U.S., France and Russia. The MoU may destabilise India’s established nuclear deals with Russia and France as they too may demand similar commitments previously denied to them
  • Top experts on nuclear affairs, however, describe the MoU as a “backdoor attempt to draw India into the NPT”.

Japanese stand

  • A Japanese diplomat pointed out that so far, the world had to rely on India’s verbal commitments on nuclear non-proliferation, but the India-Japan MoU marked the first occasion when India came under legal obligation to uphold non-proliferation concerns.The commitments were proof of India’s peaceful and transparent intentions in using nuclear reactors solely for energy generation.
  • He further said India will be financially accountable if it is found to be violating the principles.
  • An Indian official who has been associated with the negotiations said the principles being cited by the Japanese were nothing extraordinary and were part of the “standard template for civil nuclear deal” that India had signed with several countries. However, he refused to address the Japanese assertion that India would have to financially compensate Japan if it violated the principles.

NASA scientists reveal Pluto and its moons

  • NASA scientists associated with interplanetary space probe New Horizons have revealed the former “astronomer’s planet” and its “intriguing system of small moons” in a comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer’s Pluto system flyby.
  • These five detailed papers completely transform our view of Pluto — revealing the former ‘astronomer’s planet’ to be a real world with diverse and active geology, exotic surface chemistry, a complex atmosphere, puzzling interaction with the Sun and an intriguing system of small moons
  • After a 9.5-year, three-billion-mile journey — launching faster and travelling farther than any spacecraft to reach its primary target — New Horizons zipped by Pluto on July 14 last year.
  • New Horizons’ seven science instruments collected about 50 gigabits of data on the spacecraft’s digital recorders, most of it coming over nine busy days surrounding the encounter
  • The first close-up pictures revealed a large heart-shaped feature carved into Pluto’s surface, telling scientists that this “new” type of planetary world — the largest, brightest and first-explored in the mysterious, distant “third zone” of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt —would be even more interesting and puzzling than models predicted.
  • “Observing Pluto and Charon up close has caused us to completely reassess thinking on what sort of geological activity can be sustained on isolated planetary bodies in this distant region of the solar system, worlds that formerly had been thought to be relics little changed since the Kuiper Belt’s formation,” said Jeff Moore, lead author of the geology paper on Pluto.

Unisex contraceptives one step closer to reality

  • Scientists have found a switch that triggers the ‘power kick’ sperms used to fertilise a human egg, uncovering a likely source of male infertility and a target for contraceptives that work in both men and women.
  • The switch is a protein receptor that responds to the female sex hormone progesterone, which is released by the egg or oocyte, the ultimate goal towards which sperms swim.
  • Thousands of these receptors sit on the surface of a sperm’s tail and when the sperm gets close to the egg, the hormone activates the receptor and triggers a cascade of changes that make the tail snap like a whip, powering the sperm into and hopefully through the cells protecting the egg.
  • If the receptor protein doesn’t recognise progesterone, you would be infertile. This gives us an understanding of another pathway that is involved in human sperm activity

UNESCO updates protected biosphere reserves list

  • The United Nation’s cultural body UNESCO has added 20 new sites to its network of protected biosphere nature reserves, including two in Canada and two in Portugal.
  • The status was conferred during a two-day meeting in Lima, which brought the total number of biosphere reserves to 669 across 120 countries.
  • In Canada, the Tsa Tue area in the country’s Northwest Territories that includes the last pristine arctic lake was added to the list, as was the Beaver Hills region of Alberta, which has a landscape formed by a retreating glacier.
  • Britain’s Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea in a biologically diverse marine environment, and Mexico’s Isla Cozumel were also selected for the network.
  • And in Portugal, the entire Island of Sao Jorge, the fourth largest in the Azores Archipelago, was designated a reserve in addition to the Tajo River region between Portugal and Spain.
  • The list of new UNESCO biosphere reserves also includes sites in Algeria, Ghana, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines and Tanzania.
  • Of the hundreds of locations on the list, 16 are sites that stretch across more than one country. Spain is the country with the largest number of registered reserves.
  • During the meeting, nine extensions to existing biosphere reserves were also approved.
  • Meanwhile, the Australia ended its push to log World Heritage-listed forests on the island State of Tasmania , after UNESCO issued a report calling for the area to remain protected from logging.

India’s Agasthyamala among 20 UNESCO world biosphere reserves

  • The sustained campaign to include the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve (ABR) in UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves (BR) has eventually paid off.
  • The Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve was included at the International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere programme of UNESCO that concluded in Peru on March 19.

Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve

  • The ABR is situated at the southern-most end of the Western Ghats and spread over Kerala and Tamil Nadu and covers an area of 3,500 sq km at an altitude ranging from 100 metres to 1,868 metres above the Mean Sea Level.
  • The ABR covers the Shendurney and Peppara wildlife sanctuaries and parts of the Neyyar sanctuary in Kerala and the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu.
  • The area falls in the Malabar rainforests and is one of the noted hotspot areas because of its position in the Western Ghats, according to the management plan of the reserve. It is estimated that more than 2,250 species of dicotyledonous plants are in the area and 29 are endemic to the region. Many plants are considered endangered too.
  • Researchers have noted that about 400 Red Listed Plants have been recorded from ABR. About 125 species of orchids and rare, endemic and threatened plants have been recorded from the reserve
  • The Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve was the only site considered from the country by the International Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves during the Paris session held last year. That time, the ABR was listed in the category of “nominations recommended for approval, pending the submission of specific information.”

Biosphere reserves

  • Biosphere reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. They are internationally recognized, nominated by national governments and remain under sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located.

How did the biosphere reserve concept start?

  • The origin of Biosphere Reserves goes back to the “Biosphere Conference” organized by UNESCO in 1968.
  • This was the 1st intergovernmental conference examining how to reconcile the conservation and use of natural resources, thereby foreshadowing the presentday notion of sustainable development.
  • This Conference resulted in the launching of the UNESCO “Man and the Biosphere” (MAB) Programme in 1970.
  • One of the original MAB projects consisted in establishing a coordinated World Network of sites representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources would be protected, and where research on ecosystems as well as monitoring and training work could be carried out.
  • These sites were named as “Biosphere Reserves”, in reference to the MAB programme itself.

What are the functions of biosphere reserves?

  • Each biosphere reserve is intended to fulfil 3 basic functions, which are complementary and mutually reinforcing:
  1. a conservation function – to contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation;
  2. a development function – to foster economic and human development which is socioculturally and ecologically sustainable;
  3. a logistic function – to provide support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.

What are the biosphere reserve zones?

Biosphere reserves are organized into 3 interrelated zones:

  1. the core area
  2. the buffer zone
  3. the transition area
  • Only the core area requires legal protection and hence can correspond to an existing protected area such as a nature reserve or a national park. This zonation scheme is applied in many different ways in the real world to accommodate geographical conditions, sociocultural settings, available legal protection measures and local constraints.
  • This flexibility can be used creatively and is one of the strongest points of the biosphere reserve concept, facilitating the integration of protected areas into the wider landscape.

What are the benefits of biosphere reserves?

  • The biosphere reserve concept can be used as a framework to guide and reinforce projects to enhance people’s livelihoods and ensure environmental sustainability. UNESCO’s recognition can serve to highlight and reward such individual efforts.
  • The designation of a site as a biosphere reserve can raise awareness among local people, citizens and government authorities on environmental and development issues. It can help to attract additional funding from different sources.
  • At the national level, biosphere reserves can serve as pilot sites or ‘learning places’ to explore and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development, providing lessons which can be applied elsewhere.
  • In addition, they are a concrete means for countries to implement Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity (for example the Ecosystem Approach), many Millennium Development Goals (for example on environmental sustainability), and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.
  • In the case of large natural areas which straddle national boundaries, transboundary biosphere reserves can be established jointly by the countries concerned, testifying to long-term cooperative efforts.

India and biosphere reserves

  • With the addition of the ABR, 10 of the 18 biosphere reserves in the country have made it to the list.
  • The others are Nilgiri, Gulf of Mannar, Sunderban, Nanda Devi, Nokrek, Pachmarh, Similipal, Achanakmar-Amarkantak and Great Nicobar.
  • The BRs are designated for inclusion in the network by the International Coordinating Council after evaluating the nominations forwarded by the State through National MAB Committees.
  • The ABR would benefit from the shared scientific expertise of all the other members of the world network. The State is expected to work for the conservation of nature at the reserve while it fosters the sustainable development of its population, said a UNESCO official.
  • There are 669 biosphere reserves in as many as 120 countries.

U.K. lifts ban on Sikh separatist outfit

  • In a move that is likely to cause consternation in New Delhi, the British government has lifted the ban on the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) after both houses of the British Parliament supported a motion to drop it from the list of proscribed organisations.
  • The statutory instrument relating to the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2016 was signed by Minister of State in the Home Office, John Hayes.
  • The ISYF, a separatist group committed to the creation of Khalistan, was established in the 1984 as the global branch of the All India Sikh Students Federation. It was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2001 by the British government for its attacks, which included assassinations, bombings and kidnappings against Indian officials.
  • The most recent assassination attempt by Sikh terrorists was in September 2012 against Lieutenant-General Kuldeep Singh Brar and his wife. The general, who led the military offensive codenamed Operation Bluestar against terrorists holed up in the Golden Temple in 1982, narrowly escaped death when four Sikh men attacked him and his wife with knives in central London.
  • Yet, in his statement to the House of Commons, Minister of State for Home Lord Bates said that although in the past the ISYF was involved in terrorism, “there is now not sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that the ISYF is currently concerned in terrorism as defined by Section 3(5) of the Terrorism Act 2000.
  • The Sikh Federation will use the British decision to put pressure on the U.S. and Canada to lift the bans in their countries on the organisation.

Obama signs sanctions order against N. Korea

  • U.S. President Barack Obama signed an order implementing UN-backed sanctions on North Korea after a nuclear test and missile launch this year, as Pyongyang promised reprisals.
  • The executive order targetted the volatile hermit state’s energy, financial and shipping assets.
  • The measures were agreed to at the United Nations in response to the January 6 nuclear test and February 7 ballistic missile launch.
  • Among the entities targeted are the “Propaganda and Agitation Department” of the Workers’ Party of Korea and mining firms that provide the regime with much-needed revenues.

‘Nepal should stay the course on amendments

  • India and other members of the Human Rights Council pushed Nepal to carry out more constitutional amendments to accommodate the democratic aspirations of citizens from Nepal’s plains.
  • In a statement issued after the Human Rights Council’s meeting in Geneva, the Ministry of External Affairs urged Nepal to create “strong consensus” for peaceful political change.
  • Analysts have pointed out that India’s reminder on the amendments is significant as it came 24 hours after the meeting between Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Nepal’s Madhesi leaders in Kathmandu.
  • While countries like China, Pakistan, Singapore, and Maldives adopted a softer tone at the HRC’s meeting for Outcomes of the Universal Periodic Review on Nepal, India reminded Nepal to stay the course on the path of more constitutional amendments which was started to end the five-month long economic blockade by the Madhesis.

Kurds declare federal region in Syria

  • Syria’s Kurds declared a federal region in areas under their control in the north of the conflict-hit country. More than 150 delegates from Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other parties meeting in Syria agreed to create a “federal system” unifying territory run by Kurds across several Syrian provinces (in Rojava [three Kurdish cantons] and northern Syria)
  • Kurdish parties already operate a system of three “autonomous administrations” in Syria’s north, with independent police forces and schools. The three cantons stretch along Syria’s northern border with Turkey and are known as Afrin and Kobani, both in Aleppo province, and Jazire in Hasakeh province. The new “federal system” is expected to centralise governance in the three cantons under elected councils.
  • Both the government and an opposition coalition rejected the move.
  • The announcement is likely to anger neighbouring Turkey and has complicated peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the five-year civil war.
  • The U.S., a key backer of Kurdish fighters in the battle against the Islamic State (IS), has also warned that it would not recognise any self-ruled Kurdish region within Syria.

India’s beef-free pork import norm draws U.S. protest

  • Buoyed by its victory at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last year against India’s poultry import ban, the U.S. has now trained its guns on the country’s pork import regulations — which include a condition that such consignments must be beef-free.
  • During recent bilateral discussions, India made it clear to the U.S. that the requirement – that pork import consignments must be beef-free — cannot be done away with due to apprehensions of such a move “hurting religious sentiments and provoking riots,”
  • The requirement is also in place due to health reasons – to protect human health by preventing the spread of infectious diseases from animals, they added.
  • Pigs are usually fed with food ingredients of animal origin to meet their protein requirements. Such animal feeds — including meat/bone/blood meal and hydrolysed intestinal tissues — are among the most cost-effective methods to hike protein levels in the diet of animals such as pigs. However, many Indian States prevent cow slaughter. Also, beef ban, in states such as Maharashtra, had recently become controversial and the BJP had turned beef into a major political issue.
  • New Delhi has emphasised that if the US wants to export pork / pork products to India without trouble, all such consignments must come with an official veterinary certificate that the animal (pig in this case) was not fed with feed derived from cows / beef / beef products.
  • The requirement of a veterinary certificate stating among other things that “the consignment(s) of processed and unprocessed pork and pork products destined to India do not contain beef and beef products in any form” will not be removed
  • They said the US claims the condition is not based on a scientific risk assessment and the concerned international standard (World Organisation for Animal Health). However, citing the example of Australia fulfilling all the pork import norms of India to increase their exports of the item, the Indian authorities have asked the US to do the same

Indian workers may face deportation under new U.K. law

  • Thousands of Indians in the U.K. may get hit by a new law from next month under which they could be deported if their annual salary is below £35,000.
  • The changes will affect professionals living and working in Britain on a Tier-2 visa who earn less than £ 35,000 a year at the end of five years of their stay in the country.
  • The U.K. government changed the settlement rules in 2012 to break the link between coming to work in the U.K. and staying in UK permanently. The new rules would apply to migrants who entered Tier-2 from April 6, 2011. Those individuals were aware when they entered that new settlement rules would apply to them
  • Indian professionals have formed the largest category of individuals issued such visas over the years

Research tie-ups with Saudi Arabia growing

  • In the last decade, India has seen a 10-fold increase in its research collaboration with Saudi Arabia, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and conducted by Thomson Reuters.
  • In the period 2005-2008, Saudi Arabia was only the 20th most prolific contributor of India, with 123 jointly-authored papers involving Indian and Saudi Arabian researchers. This has skyrocketed to 1,303 in 2013-2014, making the oil rich kingdom India’s 12th most important contributor, surpassing Switzerland, Russia, The Netherlands and Poland.
  • In other words, from having merely 0.1 per cent of India’s total collaborative research publication output in 2005, Saudi Arabia contributes now 1.25 per cent — a 10-fold increase. In comparison, the U.S. has only increased from 6.67 per cent to 7.47 per cent.
  • For their analysis, the report employs a tool called ‘Web of Science’, a popular, online search tool, used often by scientists to search for research related to their sub-fields. The most prolific Saudi Arabian university mentioned in the analysis is the King Saud University, which is now among the top collaborators with Indian institutions.
  • While the Indian institutions, who’ve been involved with Saudi Arabia, are wide ranging such as the IITs, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Delhi University, there’s been a significant increase in collaborations involving researchers at the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia and many Saudi Arabian universities.

Problems faced by The new citizens after excahange of enclaves

  • More than 14,000 people were granted Indian citizenship on both sides following the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement between the two countries in 2015.
  • The issues are different for two sets of enclave dwellers — Indians who came from Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi citizens who were already residing on the Indian side.
  • A crucial issue facing the enclave dwellers is the settlement of private land on which the families on the Indian side were settled. They have not been given any patta establishing their claim over the land.
  • People are becoming restless and in some pockets they are resisting the survey to build government infrastructure like roads, police stations and post offices.
  • Another important issue that worries Indian citizens of Bangladesh is lack of jobs.
  • District administration arranged for work in a jute mill close to Kolkata, but the dwellers refused to move citing low wage and for fear of “being permanently displaced” from home where they had just arrived.
  • The quantity of food grains provided was an issue. A family of eight or 10 is only given as much food grain as a family of one or two is.
  • Another problem is the police check post outside Mekhliganj camp. It still remains, the district administration’s “promise” to remove it notwithstanding.

Upcoming poll

  • The administration plans to give voting rights to the erstwhile enclave dwellers in the upcoming West Bengal elections
  • Now their only hope is to raise the issues with the candidates, when they reach the enclaves to campaign for the upcoming poll. The number votes in certain pockets is quite high.

India-Bangladesh drill in Sundarbans – Sundarbans Maithri

What

  • The border-guarding forces of Bangladesh and India conducted their first-ever joint exercise in the riverine borders of the Sundarbans.
  • The exercise between the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) commenced with troopers, including dog and bomb squads, from both the forces carrying out joint searches of cargo vessels on the Ichamati river.
  • Two floating BOPs of BSF — Kamakhya and Durga —along with BGB Ship Shahjalal were deployed in the waters of the Ichamati along the international border that serves as the international border between the two countries.
  • The exercise would become a “regular affair” in the future.

Why

  • To bring in more synergy in coordinated border management,
  • The drill can be a big deterrent to smugglers and criminals who will have to deal with the combined efforts of both the force.
  • The joint exercise would be extended on land as well to make it part of a coordinated border management plan.

Concerns near the border-  cross-border smuggling

  • Smuggling of cattle – has come down by nearly 60 to 70 per cent in the recent times.
  • Smuggling of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN).
  • Smuggling of Phensedyl from India to Bangladesh – the recent decision to ban on the cough syrup would help the forces to stop smuggling. Earlier, in order to attract penal provisions under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, more than 10,000 bottles had to seized.

Military upgrade on border lags Chinese modernisation

  • India will be making only incremental improvement to its military infrastructure along the border with China. Military officers describe the China strategy as “timid” and no match to the aggressive modernisation of border capabilities and overhaul of military structure by the neighbour.
  • Its most ambitious plan for dealing with the neighbour’s military prowess is stuck because of a resource crunch.

Mountain Strike Corps – Not done

  • Indian military’s most ambitious plan to deal with Chinese challenge — raising a dedicated Mountain Strike Corps — is languishing for lack of government attention and financial allocation.
  • The UPA government had sanctioned the strike corps in 2013, projecting a total expense of over Rs. 64,000 crore and nearly 90,000 personnel.
  • A strike corps would require at least two full divisions. With no significant budget increase this year, there is no hope that the second division can be raised anytime soon

What has been done

  • The Indian Air Force
  1. Has upgraded three of the ALGs with paved runway surfaces and facilities such as aprons for ground manoeuvring and air traffic control towers. The new runway surfaces and other infrastructure are at par with any other modern airfield in the country.
  2. Three more ALGs — Mechuka, Pasighat, Tuting — are scheduled to be inaugurated in the next three months.
  3. Re-launched two upgraded advanced landing grounds (ALGs) in  Arunachal Pradesh.
  4. Will upgrade six more of those World War II vintage strips in Arunachal Pradesh.
  5. To provide better logistical access for airdropping troops and equipment in forward areas.
  6. The entire project, approved in 2009 and budgeted at about Rs. 1,000 crore

ExoMars: ‘giant nose’ to sniff out life on Mars

  • Space engineers are making final preparations for the launch of a robot spacecraft designed to sniff out signs of life on Mars.
  • The probe, ExoMars 2016 — the first of a two-phase exploration of the Red Planet by European and Russian scientists — is scheduled to be blasted into space on a Proton rocket from Baikonour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0931 GMT on 14th.
  • ExoMars is expected to arrive at the Red Planet on 19 October after a journey of 496m km across space, and will be followed by a second ExoMars mission, a Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2018.

Components of the spacecraft 

  • Schiaparelli – A module that will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for future probe landings on Mars
  • Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, that will analyse the planet’s atmosphere. In particular it will seek out the presence of the gas methane which, on Earth, .

Why methane

  • A colourless, odourless flammable gas which is the main constituent of natural gas. It is the simplest member of the alkane series of hydrocarbons.
  • Is produced by living organisms
  • Methane is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years of its creation.
  • Its presence on Mars would therefore suggest life had recently been active there.
  • On Earth most methane is generated biologically, but it can be made by chemical processes under the surface. To differentiate between these two processes, the ExoMars trace gas detector will not only analyse methane levels in more detail than any previous mission but also study other gases that will provide information about its likely source. If methane is found in the presence of other complex hydrocarbon gases, such as propane or ethane, that will be a strong indication that biological processes are involved. However, if we find methane in the presence of gases such as sulphur dioxide, a chemical strongly associated with volcanic activity on Earth, that will be a pretty sure sign that we are dealing with methane that has come from the ground and is a byproduct of geological processes.

Earlier attempts

  • The U.S. robot rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, initially found no sign of methane. Subsequent analyses in 2014 did report the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere in one area. However, some scientists have argued that it may have been created by non—biological means.

Magnetic chips to enhance energy efficiency of computers

  • In a breakthrough for energy-efficient computing, engineers at the University of California-Berkeley have shown for the first time that magnetic chips can operate with the lowest fundamental level of energy dissipation possible under the laws of thermodynamics.
  • The findings mean that dramatic reductions in power consumption are possible — as much as one-millionth the amount of energy per operation used by transistors in modern computers.
  • This is critical for mobile devices, which demand powerful processors that can run for a day or more on small, lightweight batteries.
  • On a larger industrial scale, as computing increasingly moves into ‘the cloud’, the electricity demands of the giant cloud data centres are multiplying, collectively taking an increasing share of the country’s — and world’s — electrical grid.
  • Lowering energy use is a relatively recent shift in focus in chip manufacturing after decades of emphasis on packing greater numbers of increasingly tiny and faster transistors onto chips.
  • Magnetic computing emerged as a promising candidate because the magnetic bits can be differentiated by direction, and it takes just as much energy to get the magnet to point left as it does to point right.

Pak. to release 86 Indian fishermen

  • Pakistan will release 86 Indian fishermen languishing in a Karachi prison on March 21, a Gujarat government official said on Sunday. These fishermen had been apprehended by the Pakistan Marine Security Agency (PMSA) for allegedly violating International Maritime Boundary Line.

The chirp attests dispersionless nature of gravity waves

  • After the much-discussed, many-author paper in Physical Review Lettersrevealed the detection of a gravitational wave (denoted GW150914), the LIGO Scientific Collaboration is submitting another paper on how the characteristics of the signal detected vouch for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
  • The gravitational wave detected on September 14, 2015 was due to the merger of two black holes of mass 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. According to Newtonian dynamics, if the black holes had been orbiting around each other, they would have been in a circular or an elliptical orbit. Einstein however said that they would spiral inwards towards each other (the inspiral phases) and when they came close would lock in a circular orbit, where, in a jiffy, they would merge (merger and ringdown phase). The energy lost in this process would be emitted as gravitational waves which bore the signature of the inspiral, merger and ringdown stages.
  • There have been many tests of General Theory of Relativity at low speeds, that is, in the order of 0.001 times the speed of light. The specialty of GW150914 was that it was emitted due to a high-speed event, the black hole merger described above.
  • Here are a few of the ways in which it was shown that the equations of General Theory of Relativity stood the test at the high speeds: first, the spin and mass of the merged entity, as predicted by the part of the signal representing the inspiral phase, matched with what was calculated using the part of the signal representing the merger and ringdown phases.
  • Second, during the inspiral phase, when the black holes are far apart, they are moving at about 0.1-0.4 times the speed of light. This is, relatively speaking, a low speed, and the system may be treated as a perturbation, or correction, to the Newtonian description. In Newton’s theory, the black holes are just orbiting each other in a circular or elliptical orbit and there is no energy lost by way of gravitational waves which causes them to spiral towards each other (fall inwards).
  • In other words, the black hole pair can be described by an equation of motion based on Newtonian dynamics with appropriate correction terms which come in at higher orders. Using this approach, when one calculates the so-called post-Newtonian coefficients, they are found to match with what has been inferred from the experimentally detected signal.
  • Lastly, according to the General Theory of Relativity, gravitational waves must be “dispersionless” that is, the field particle associated with gravity, the graviton, must have a zero mass. This means different wavelength components of the wave would travel at the same speed. This was also verified by the form of the wave. ‘The famous “chirp” that was heard attests the dispersionless character of the component waves. Dispersion will introduce a characteristic change in the shape of the observed signal. If they had had a strong dispersion, what would have been heard is an “inverted chirp”’, says Dr. P. Ajith of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru.

Civil society takes centre stage at MEA outreach programme

  • The Government will showcase ties between Indian civil society organisations and the foreign policy goals during a conference later this week.
  • This comes after the Ministry of External Affairs displayed the achievement of the civil society organisations in the field of sustainable development and renewable energy during the Cop21 Paris climate change conference and the India Africa Summit of 2015. The global-level conference will be part of a year-long mega conference series, kick-started by the MEA last week with the Raisina Dialogue.
  • Almost all the major civil society organisations of India will participate in the March 10-11 “Conference on South- South Cooperation”, being organised by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) of the MEA, to showcase the expanding space for civil society organisations in the scheme of the External Affairs Ministry.
  • “New South-South cooperation is needed in view of the shrinkage of resources in the developed North and the emergence of South as a new centre of economic activity,” said Shyam Saran, Director General of RIS and Former Foreign Secretary, highlighting that Indian civil society organisations in the field of sustainable development will play a key role in the two-day conference. The conference, to be attended by at least 100 experts from the field of international affairs and development economics, will be a platform for the Government’s long term plan to use development assistance as a tool for India’s diplomacy.
  • The Ministry of External Affairs has been showcasing civil society initiatives at the international level and also used organisations like the Barefoot College of Tilonia to highlight India’s commitment to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
  • In addition to the civil society connection, the conference will also launch the Network of Southern Thinktanks (NeST) which will connect think tanks across Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South Americas.

Talking to India on religious freedom, says United States

  • The U.S. on Monday expressed disappointment over India denying visas to members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
  • A USCIRF team was planning to travel to India on March 4, but India did not process their visa applications. The Indian embassy in Washington said there was no change in India’s policy with respect to such visits and saw no “locus standi of a foreign entity like the USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”
  • India has been denying visas to USCIRF for seven years now.
  • “We’re disappointed by this news,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said, and added that religious freedom in India had been a “topic of conversation between the two countries.” “It’s not a topic of conversation that we’re afraid to have with our Indian counterparts,” he said.
  • “We are supportive of the commission and the important role they play in reviewing facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom around the world. As President Obama himself noted during his visit last year, we support the Government of India’s commitments — commitment to promoting religious freedom and diversity,” he said. “Our nations are stronger when every person has the right to practise the faith they choose, or to practise no faith at all…,” Mr. Obama had said.

Sri Lanka ready for peace, says Erik Solheim

  • With President Maithripala Sirisena at the helm in Sri Lanka, this is the best opportunity to bring about a lasting solution to the country’s ethnic question, Norway’s former special peace envoy Erik Solheim said on Tuesday.
  • “The strength of Sri Lankan democracy is such that it has removed Mahinda Rajapaksa from the President’s chair. While he assured an inclusive approach post-war to settle the ethnic question, he never acted on the promise of reaching out to Tamils,” the former diplomat said.
  • Participating in a panel discussion on the newly-launched book To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka , Mr. Solheim, who played a key role in the peace treaty signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in 2002, said there were two main obstacles to reconciliation in the island nation.
  • “The two main Sinhala parties — United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party — were never able to work together. When one thought about making a move forward, there was always the apprehension of the other using it as a political tool to gain ground,” he said.
  • The second was the reliance of V. Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, on violence. “He genuinely believed that there were military solutions to the political problems. This was political stupidity,” Mr Solheim said and added that the Norwegian peace delegation made it clear time and again to Prabhakaran that killings should stop if he had any hope of proscriptions in different countries being lifted.
  • Norway’s initiative
  • On the accusation that by treating LTTE on a par with the Sri Lankan government, Norway ended up giving legitimacy to the ‘terrorist organisation’ and refurbished its image, Mr. Solheim said whatever was achieved would not have been possible without reaching out to the other side. He added that the greatest achievement of the peace process that Norway initiated was the ceasefire, which saved thousands of lives.
  • N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, said the Indian policy on Sri Lanka was contradictory in the earlier stages. Under Indira Gandhi, the country provided sanctuary and training to the various militant groups. It ended up paying a heavy price by losing former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by the LTTE.
  • However, the positive side of the experience was that since 1991, India has deployed a “hands-off” approach and refused to fall into the trap of the LTTE again. “This was despite pressure from fringe groups in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora,” he observed.
  • Squarely blaming the LTTE for derailing the Norway-faciliated peace process, Mr. Ram said while Prabhakaran was a military genius and had committed cadre, at the core, the LTTE was a ‘Pol Potist’ organisation. “Norway and others clearly failed to recognise this. After the death of Rajiv Gandhi, this should have been utterly clear. Norway should not have equated the Sri Lankan state with the LTTE,” he opined.
  • Mark Salter, the book’s author, said ‘Indian culpability’ in the whole affair also needed some reflection. He said the willingness of the parties involved was a crucial factor for the success of the process. “In the Sri Lankan context, when this willingness decreased, it showed on the results.”
  • Former West Bengal Governor and former Indian high commissioner in Sri Lanka, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, moderated the discussion.

Mountain on a dwarf planet

  • NASA’s Dawn spacecraft that slid gently into orbit around dwarf planet Ceres last year shows a tall mountain that the Dawn team named Ahuna Mons.

Detachables take over tablet market

  • The global market for tablet computers will see another decline in 2016, but one bright spot is in “detachables” which are gaining as PC replacements, researchers said Tuesday.
  • A report by research firm IDC said tablet sales worldwide are likely to slip 5.9 percent this year to 195 million units, following a drop of 10 percent in 2015.
  • But even as the “slate” tablet market cools from its once red-hot pace, one key growth segment is detachables, which bodes well for Microsoft and makers of other Windows-based devices. IDC projected a 73 percent jump in detachable tablet sales this year. New entrants like Alcatel and Huawei are coming into this segment.

Digital devices can cause sleep trouble

  • A clear majority of young Swedes used digital devices in bed before going to sleep, with one in three having trouble getting proper rest, a media report said
  • A third of respondents aged 15 to 29 said they had trouble sleeping, a poll cited by public broadcaster Swedish Television found.
  • Eighty-two per cent of that group said they use digital devices in bed before going to sleep.
  • “The very use of social media makes one active. In order to sleep, the brain needs to calm down,” Torbjorn Akerstedt, a professor at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, told the channel.The blue light emitted by screens tricks the body into thinking it is day time, while at the same time suppressing the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps people sleep, the channel reported.
  • One quarter of the young people polled said they would like to be able to switch off their access to social media during particular hours, Xinhua reported.
  • Nearly half the young respondents said they are sleeping worse today than five years ago, while 31 per cent said they believed social media was disturbing their sleep.
  • Nearly two-thirds said they had trouble concentrating on daily tasks due to lack of sleep. — IANS
  • A poll finds young residents of Sweden who used digital devices before going to bed had trouble sleeping

Mystery behind Mercury’s darkness solved

  • Mercury appears to be dark due to the abundance of carbon that originated deep below the surface of our solar system’s innermost planet, a new study has found.
  • The planet reflects much less sunlight than the Moon, on which surface darkness is controlled by the abundance of iron—rich minerals that are known to be rare on Mercury’s surface, researchers said.
  • Researchers led by Patrick Peplowski of the Johns Hopkins University in US have confirmed that a high abundance of carbon is present at Mercury’s surface.
  • They have also found that the carbon most likely originated deep below the surface in the form of a now-disrupted and buried ancient graphite-rich crust, some of which was later brought to the surface by impact processes after most of Mercury’s current crust had formed.
  • The researchers obtained data from NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft, the first space mission designed to orbit Mercury.
  • “We used MESSENGER’s Neutron Spectrometer to spatially resolve the distribution of carbon and found that it is correlated with the darkest material on Mercury, and this material most likely originated deep in the crust,” said Larry Nittler, from Carnegie Institution of Washington.
  • “We used both neutrons and X-rays to confirm that the dark material is not enriched in iron, in contrast to the Moon where iron-rich minerals darken the surface,” said Nittler, who is also Deputy Principal Investigator of the MESSENGER mission.
  • MESSENGER obtained its data via many orbits on which the spacecraft passed lower than 100 km above the surface of the planet during its last year of operation.
  • Neutron Spectrometer measurements showed higher amounts of low-energy neutrons, a signature consistent with the presence of elevated carbon, coming from the surface when the spacecraft passed over concentrations of the darkest material.
  • Combining the neutron measurements with other MESSENGER datasets, including X-ray measurements and reflectance spectra, Scientists found that Mercury’s surface rocks are made up of as much as a few weight per cent graphitic carbon, much higher than on other planets.
  • Graphite has the best fit to the reflectance spectra, at visible wavelengths, and the likely conditions that produced the material, researchers said. When Mercury was very young, much of the planet was likely so hot that there was a global “ocean” of molten magma.
  • Scientists have suggested that as this magma ocean cooled, most minerals that solidified sank, except graphite, which would have been buoyant and floated to form the original crust of Mercury.
  • The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience

Germany focusses on 3 cities for Smart City project

  • Kochi, Bhubaneswar and Coimbatore would be the first three cities to receive Germany’s support under the Smart City project.
  • In this context, the German Building Ministry also supports German companies that want to cooperate intensively with Indian partners in order to assist Indian cities in implementing their plan
  • Germany has been involved in various fields related to Smart Cities — such as sustainable urban mobility, water and waste-water management, renewable energies and energy efficiency.

Women professors less often rated as brilliant and genius: study

  • Students in the U.S. two to three times more often describe male professors as “brilliant” and “genius” than female professors, new research has found.
  • For the study, the researchers conducted an analysis of more than 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, where students write anonymous reviews of their professors.
  • Students most often use the words “brilliant” and “genius” to describe male professors and in academic disciplines in which women and African—Americans are underrepresented — such as philosophy and physics — the findings showed.
  • The findings, reported in the journal PLOS ONE , included academic disciplines in the sciences, humanities, social sciences and math.
  • The new analysis offers new insights into students’ attitudes and thoughts, the researchers said.
  • What is valuable about spontaneous comments is that they provide an unvarnished reflection of how people evaluate others in their field, and what they look for in other people in that field
  • The study also found African—Americans are underrepresented. But none of the following four factors could fully explain the underrepresentation of women or African-Americans in a field — average GRE (graduate school entry exam) math scores, the desire to avoid long hours at work, the selectivity of each field or the ability to think systematically.

U.K. set to increase visa fees from March 18

  • The decision by the British government to increase visa application fees from March 18 will have an impact on migrants from India, from where a large segment of entrants seeking to live and work in the U.K. come.
  • The changes mean a 2 per cent rise in most fees and a 25 per cent rise for nationality and settlement applications.
  • The increase in fees “linked most closely to economic growth” such as those offered to workers and students will increase by 2 per cent, as will tourist visas.
  • Settlement, residence and nationality fees will be increased by 25 per cent; while optional premium services offered by the Home Office such as the super premium service and priority visa services overseas will be increased by 33 per cent.
  • The Home Office notification says the aim of the increase is to achieve a “self-funding system, whilst continuing to provide a competitive level of service, and a fees structure that remains attractive to businesses, migrants and visitors”.
  • From India, tourist visas to the U.K. will go up from £85 to £87 (six months); £324 to £330 (two years); £588 to £600 (five years); and £737 to £752 (10 years). There are increases for student visas, work and settlement visas and for academics who travel to the U.K. on work. The full list of the fee structure can be found on the U.K. Home Office website
  • According to a report from the Office for National Statistics, of the top 10 nationalities who were granted entry clearance visas (that excludes visitor and transit visas) to the U.K. in 2015, Indians were the second highest at 85,403 following China which had the largest number at 93,076.

Energy on tap with solar panel that fits in a bag

  • Scientists have a mechanism for to capture solar energy on the go.They have developed a large steel container that contains a long spool of solar panels, all attached together on a strong flexible fabric that can be pulled out into a 50-metre-long system in two minutes. The portable, carpet-like solar system stores generated energy in batteries in the steel housing
  • The market for off-grid energy is huge and growing — 24 per cent of the world is off grid but everyone needs energy these days
  • The system uses copper indium gallium selenide solar cells (CIGS) that are bonded with a tensile fabric. The strength of the combined material can cope with being rolled in and out, and it can be in full operation a few minutes after it is deployed.
  • It is like a microgrid in a box. The spool of solar panels is typically pulled out by a vehicle, which takes about two minutes, but can also be done manually, albeit by a number of people.
  • An initial prototype had a capacity of 6 kW, about twice that of a solar array on a typical family home. The current generation will have a capacity of up to 18 kW, and similar levels of efficiency to solar systems sold for homes in the U.K.
  • The steel unit in which the spool of panels is housed has lifting rings on the top which can be attached to helicopters so that the unit can be dropped by air.

Applications

  • It is expected to be used for disaster relief when power systems have been knocked out
  • A second market is for the military, and specifically for forward operating bases where fuel is sometimes, in the case of remote operations, being flown in.
  • Mining companies which may be exploring in specific areas for short periods at a time, and need to be able to up and move

Element that helped form solar system discovered

  • Scientists from University of Chicago have discovered evidence of a rare element named curium that was present during the formation of the solar system. The team found evidence of curium in an unusual ceramic inclusion they called “Curious Marie”, taken from a carbonaceous meteorite.
  • “Curious Marie” and curium are both named after Marie Curie whose pioneering work laid the foundation of the theory of radioactivity.
  • This finding ends a 35-year-old debate on the possible presence of curium in the early solar system and plays a crucial role in reassessing models of stellar evolution and synthesis of elements in stars.
  • Curium is an elusive element. It is one of the heaviest-known elements, yet it does not occur naturally because all of its isotopes are radioactive and decay rapidly on a geological time scale. Curium became incorporated into the inclusion when it condensed from the gaseous cloud that formed the sun early in the history of the solar system. On Earth, curium exists only when manufactured in laboratories or as a by-product of nuclear explosions.
  • The possible presence of curium in the early solar system has long been exciting to cosmochemists, because they can often use radioactive elements as chronometers to date the relative ages of meteorites and planets
  • The team was able to identify and target a specific kind of meteoritic inclusion rich in calcium and aluminium. These CAIs (calcium, aluminium-rich inclusions) are known to have a low abundance of uranium and likely to have high curium abundance.
  • One of these inclusions — Curious Marie — contained an extremely low amount of uranium.
  • The research team was able to calculate the amount of curium present in the early solar system and to compare it to the amount of other heavy radioactive elements such as iodine-129 and plutonium-244. They found that all these isotopes could have been produced together by a single process in stars.
  • This is particularly important because it indicates that as successive generations of stars die and eject the elements they produced into the galaxy, the heaviest elements are produced together, while previous work had suggested that this was not the case

India takes on U.S. at WTO over visa rules

  • India has filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the United States over its measures raising fees on some applicants for temporary work visas, mostly involving the tech sector.
  • India has started dispute proceedings alleging the U.S. measures are not consistent with Washington’s commitments to accept services from other countries. In its request for consultation, India alleges the U.S. had increased fees for temporary visas in December
  • It argues that as a result, some Indians receive unfair treatment compared with Americans in the United States in providing similar services in sectors like computer services.
  • India in effect is seeking consultations with the U.S. The WTO will make further information available in coming days.
  • The Indian move is unusual at the WTO, where most disputes involve goods, tariffs and restrictions, not services.
  • Last summer, the WTO upheld a ruling that India was unfairly blocking imports of U.S. poultry and eggs, which the Obama administration called a major victory that could expand export opportunities for American farmers.

U.S. response

  • US is confident that the United States’ visa program, which was recently updated on a bipartisan basis by Congress, is fully consistent with our WTO obligations

Zika virus kills cells that form key brain tissue: report 

  • In what may be the first lab evidence of the potency of the Zika virus, researchers in the United States have found that it severely damages a type of neural stem cell that gives rise to the brain’s cerebral cortex.
  • The findings are significant given that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is set to decide, within the next few months, whether the Zika virus — historically known to be relatively benign — is indeed wholly responsible for the outbreak of microcephaly, or deformed skulls, in newborns in Brazil and other parts of South America.
  • The team of researchers, led by Guo-li Ming and Hongjun Song of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Hengli Tang of Florida State University report in the current edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell that they saw the virus’ destruction, on neuronal cells derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.
  • What we show is that the Zika virus infects neuronal cells in dish that are counterparts to those that form the cortex during human brain development. We still don’t know at all what is happening in the developing foetus. These findings may correlate with disrupted brain development, but direct evidence for a link between Zika virus and microcephaly is more likely to come from clinical studies
  • Several other questions however remain. For instance, why are the symptoms in adults so mild? How is the virus entering the nervous system of the developing foetus?

Blockchain – Technology behind Bit coin

  • Blockchain is the technology behind web-based cryptocurrency bitcoin. Cyrptocurrencies such as bitcoin have been making a lot of buzz over the last few years
  • The underlying blockchain technology emerged from the shadows of cryptocurrencies only at the beginning of last year.

What is blockchain

  • Blockchain, maintained by a network of distributed independent communicating devices, offers a single source of truth for financial and non-financial transactions without any trusted central authority.
  • The fact that blockchain’s distributed database is verified by a network of nodes and continuously grows based on the previous data records, makes it very hard to be tampered with.
  • It holds significant promise in helping financial services organizations minimize counterparty risks, speed up settlements, improve contractual performance, and enhance regulatory reporting.
  • Blockchain is increasingly drawing attention around the world for building new work processes to make transactions and digital interactions more secure, transparent, efficient and cost-effective, thereby delivering superior experience to customers.

Applications of blockchain

  • The basic premise of blockchain is that it decentralizes the age-old centralized trust-based system.
  • Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin form just one of the various applications of blockchain to have emerged first.
  • Any asset transaction between counterparties is a good candidate for blockchain application, as such transactions typically involve record-keeping, reconciliation and reporting.
  • Blockchain offers many use cases in financial institutions, particularly in improving existing processes and reducing the time and risk involved in transactions.
  • The technology is continuously evolving and various combinations of platforms, programs and protocols are at play today.
  • Some areas with application are
  1. Smart contracts — computer protocols that facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract, or obviate the need for a contractual clause and P2P transactions where senders and receivers can directly send and receive data over a network and where multiple users can connect and share files.
  2.  blockchain and cryptocurrency accelerators in the areas of P2P payments, asset trading, document storage, identity management, and lending, merchant and other financial transactions.
  3. Cross-border payment and remittances, post-trade settlement, syndicated loans, and trade finance are some of the other areas that many financial services firms are exploring worldwide.

A tunnel found at India Pakistan border

  • A high alert has been sounded along the 198-km International Border (IB) in the Kathua and Akhnoor areas of Jammu after security agencies spotted a tunnel from Pakistan.
  • The tunnel, 3×4 feet in diameter, was dug 10 feet below the ground near a BSF post in R.S. Pora. The tunnel starts from the Pakistani side
  • The tunnel spotted was meant to “infiltrate terrorists” into Jammu, which is closer to Punjab, and where several fidayeen (suicide) attacks have taken place since 2014. The end of the tunnel in the Indian territory is not complete.
  • The tunnel, running 30 metres into the Indian territory, was yet to reach the barbed wire fencing.
  • The matter was raised at a flag meeting with the Pakistan Rangers. Initially, the Rangers tried to make it out to be a disputed area
  • Ever since the first tunnel was spotted in 2012 in the Jammu region, the BSF has launched a drive to locate conduits.
  • The BSF has decided to clear the entire area of wild growth, right up to the zero line.

India denies visas for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 

  • For the past several years, India has turned down the request for visas for annual visits by the USCIRF.
  • The goal of the Commission’s trip was to discuss and assess religious freedom conditions in that nation
  • Responding to the USCIRF, the Indian embassy in Washington said in a statement: “There is no change in the policy of the Government of India with respect to such visits. India is a vibrant pluralistic society founded on strong democratic principles. The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens including the right to freedom of religion. We do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”
  • The embassy said India looked “forward to continuing working with the United States government for sharing of experience and best practice on all issues of mutual interest under the established bilateral mechanisms like the India-United States Global Issues Forum.”

Connectivity plans not unilateral: Sushma

  • India and China jockeyed over their plans to build connectivity during the Ministry of External Affairs’ first ‘Raisina Dialogue’ international conference, with India projecting its own plans in the Indian Ocean and across Central Asia as a counter to China’s estimated 1-trillion dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
  • The theme of the conference was ‘Asian connectivity’, which External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said was “central to the globalisation process” and “particularly important for Asia’s growth and development.”

Indian firm to partner Israel for anti-tank missiles

  • Rafael of Israel and Kalyani group are setting up a joint venture (JV), Kalyani Rafael Advanced Systems, to build weapon systems in India. It could start with the production of Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) which the Indian Army is in the process of procuring.
  • Spike is a third generation, fire and forget anti-tank missile

Details

  • The deal which was cleared in 2014 ran into trouble but the issues have been sorted and negotiations will be completed soon. The deal is on the top of the agenda during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel later this year.
  • Under a tripartite agreement the JV is expected to manufacture sub-assemblies and Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) will do electro optics and do hot integration at its Hyderabad facility which currently manufactures French Milan ATGMs.
  • Conforming to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) norms in defence the Kalyani group will hold 51 percent stake with Rafael holding the rest.
  • The initiative is in line with the government’s ‘Make in India’ policy and will enable the development and production of high end technology systems within the country
  • The Rs.3,200 crore deal for the ATGMs was cleared in 2014 by the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley which put an end to uncertainty after the U.S. offer of joint production of Javelin missiles.
  • The deal includes 8,000 plus missiles, 300 plus launchers and requisite technology transfer to the Indian entity which was initially supposed to be BDL.

ASEAN-Plus military drill begins in Pune

  • Military personnel of adversarial world powers converged upon the Aundh Military Station in Pune to thrall spectators with the largest Multinational Field Training Exercise (FTX) ever conducted on Indian soil.
  • The week-long exercise, being held from March 2 to 8, is christened ‘Force 18’ (initially labelled ‘FTX-2016’).
  • The spectacle is an elaborate and ambitious military training exercise involving Army units from eighteen countries, often locked as adversaries in the arena of global realpolitik.
  • They include nine members of the Association of South East Asian Nations and eight observer States: India, Japan, Korea, China, Russia, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • Myanmar was compelled to back out owing to elections and security issues pertaining to border infiltration.
  • The countries participating in this FTX have shown faith in the Indian Army for their excellent record with the UN peacekeeping forces

Importance

  • The broad objective of ‘Force 18’ was to build common understanding and achieve inter-operability among the 18 ASEAN-Plus countries.
  • An emphasis on minimising casualties caused by land mines would be a focal point.
  • The drill also aims at reaffirming India’s expertise as the lead agency in Southeast Asia for Peacekeeping Operations and Humanitarian Mine Action.
  • A unique facet of the exercise is that the Indian Army contingent of 40 soldiers is being led by Lt Col Sophia Qureshi, a woman officer from the Corps of Signals, who now has the rare distinction of becoming the first woman officer to lead an Indian Army training contingent in such a multinational exercise.

Is Earth getting an intergalactic SOS?

  • Astronomers have, for the first time, detected repeating short bursts of mysterious and powerful radio waves from an enigmatic source that is likely located well beyond the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.
  • The findings indicate that these “fast radio bursts” come from an extremely powerful object, which occasionally produces multiple bursts in under a minute
  • All previously detected fast radio bursts (FRBs) have appeared to be one-off events. As a result, most theories about the origin of these mysterious pulses have involved cataclysmic incidents that destroy their source — a star exploding in a supernova, for example, or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole.
  • The new finding, however, shows that at least some FRBs may have other origins. The FRBs, which last just a few thousandths of a second, have puzzled scientists since they were first reported nearly a decade ago. Despite extensive follow-up efforts, astronomers until now have searched in vain for repeat bursts.
  • The finding suggests that these bursts must have come from an object, such as a rotating neutron star having unprecedented power that enables the emission of extremely bright pulses.
  • The study was published in the journal Nature.

Fungus fossil gives clues to oldest land-dweller

  • Scientists have identified the oldest fossil of any land-dwelling organism yet found — an early type of fungus from 440 million years ago which likely kick—started the process of rot and soil formation, encouraging the growth and diversification of life on land.
  • This early pioneer, known as Tortotubus , displays a structure similar to one found in some modern fungi, which likely enabled it to store and transport nutrients through the process of decomposition.
  • Although it cannot be said to be the first organism to have lived on land, it is the oldest fossil of a terrestrial organism yet found, researchers said. During the period when this organism existed, life was almost entirely restricted to the oceans — nothing more complex than simple mossy and lichen-like plants had yet evolved on the land
  • But before there could be flowering plants or trees, or the animals that depend on them, the processes of rot and soil formation needed to be established
  • Researchers attempted to reconstruct the method of growth for two types of fossils that were first identified in 1980s.
  • The fossils had been thought to be parts of two different organisms, but by identifying other fossils with ‘in-between’ forms, researchers were able to show that they represented parts of a single organism at different stages of growth.
  • The fossils represent mycelium — the root-like filaments that fungi use to extract nutrients from soil.
  • It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when life first migrated from the seas to the land, but it is generally agreed that the transition started early in the Palaeozoic era, between 500 and 450 million years ago, researchers said.
  • But before any complex forms of life could live on land, there needed to be nutrients there to support them.
  • Fungi played a key role in the move to land, since by kick-starting the rotting process, a layer of fertile soil could eventually be built up, enabling plants with root systems to establish themselves, which in turn could support animal life.
  • Tortotubus had a cord-like structure, similar to that of some modern fungi, in which the main filament sends out primary and secondary branches that stick back onto the main filament, eventually enveloping it.
  • The study was published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society .

U.S. push for joint patrols in Indo-Pacific region

  • The United States continues to push India towards joint naval patrols and multilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • In the first ever trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and Australia held last year, the three sides discussed “maritime security — including freedom of navigation patrols — and trilateral cooperation” in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
  • This development is significant as all three countries have been traditionally reluctant to take any measures that could antagonise China.
  • A senior officer from US added that the trilateral should be expanded to a quadrilateral format including United States
  • The Malabar bilateral naval exercises have been last year expanded to trilateral format including Japan.

India’s stance

  •  Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that there was no scope for such patrols at this point of time.

6 Indian seamen freed from Egyptian prison

  • Six Indian seamen languishing in a jail in Egypt for over two years on charges of drug-trafficking have been released and returned home
  • The six Indian men were arrested in February 2014 near the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, Egypt, while they were employed in a Greek-owned ship — named Callisto, which was en route from the UAE to Egypt.
  • Subsequently, a case of drug trafficking was filed against the Captain, Engineer (both Syrian nationals), and the six Indian seamen.
  • Ms. Swaraj, during her visit to Egypt on August 25 last year, had met the six men and raised their issue with Egyptian Foreign Minister.

ISS crew return to Earth after one year in space

  • U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth  after spending almost a year in space in a ground-breaking experiment foreshadowing a potential manned mission to Mars.
  • The 340-day mission saw Mr. Kelly break the record for the longest single stay in space by a U.S. astronaut, while Mr. Kornienko is now fifth on the list for lengthiest mission by a Russian cosmonaut.
  • The “one-year crew” mission — which began on March 27 last year — was the longest by any astronauts aboard the ISS and seen as a vital chance to measure the effects of a prolonged period in space on the human body. They have been subjected to a battery of tests and other experiments in preparation for a future manned mission to Mars and beyond.
  • Weightlessness reduces muscle mass and bone density and is believed to diminish eyesight by increasing cerebrospinal fluid around the optic nerve.
  • Mr. Kelly, 52, was also part of an experiment comparing his development and changes in space with his identical twin brother — Mark — back on Earth.
  • In his year aboard the space station Mr. Kelly has been an avid Internet poster, capturing stunning views on his Instagram page and tweeting regularly to nearly a million followers while travelling some 230 million kilometres.

SCOTT KELLY GREW TALLER IN SPACE

  • Astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently got back after a year in space, is now about two inches taller than when he left Earth. But the change could be temporary, scientists said.

CCS clears two more AWACS from Israel

  • Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel later this year, a first by an Indian Prime Minister, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has cleared the purchase of additional surveillance aircraft from the century.
  • The CCS chaired by Mr. Modi cleared the proposal to acquire two more Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) under a tripartite agreement with Israel and Russia.
  • The AWACS are advanced radars mounted on an aircraft to give 360 degree coverage to detect incoming aircraft and missiles at long ranges.
  • India had procured three Phalcon AWACS, Israeli radars mounted on Russian IL-76 transport aircraft, in 2003 at cost of $1 billion. Indo-Israel ties got a major boost after Mr. Modi came to power.

9 killed in attack on Indian mission in Afghanistan

  • In the fourth attack since 2007, terrorists, including suicide bombers, struck the Indian consulate in Jalalabad city of Afghanistan  killing nine persons and causing damage to the chancery.
  • The External Affairs Ministry said all Indians in the mission were safe and six terrorists were dead. Two civilians and an Afghan security person were also killed.