1. Flight test of LCA-Mk2 to be completed by 2027
Cabinet Committee on Security sanctioned the development of the model earlier this week at a total cost of ₹9,000 crore
With the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) sanctioning the development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk2, a bigger and more capable fighter than the present one, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is setting a target of 2027 to complete the entire flight testing, according to Defence officials.
“The CCS sanctioned the project early this week at a total development cost of ₹9000 crore including the ₹2500 crore that has already been spent. The roll out of LCA-Mk2 is planned by 2024 and the target is to complete flight testing by 2027,” one official said. Indian Air Force (IAF) has given commitment to procure six squadrons of LCA-MK2, another official said.
The proposal on the indigenous fifth generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), is currently with the CCS and the approval is expected very soon, officials said.
The LCA-Mk2 will be a heavier and much more capable aircraft than the current LCA variants and the LCA-Mk1A that is scheduled to be delivered to the IAF by early 2024, 83 of which have been contracted under a ₹48,000-crore deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL). As per schedule, the HAL is expected to deliver the first three Mk1A aircraft in 2024 and 16 aircraft a year for the subsequent five years.
The Mk2 features enhanced range and endurance, including an onboard oxygen generation system, which is being integrated for the first time, and the ability to carry heavy stand-off weapons of the class of Scalp, Crystal Maze and Spice-2000. The Mk2 is 1,350 mm longer, featuring canards and can carry a payload of 6,500 kg compared with the 3,500 kg the LCA can carry.
The Mk2 will be powered by the General Electric GE-414 engine, which will also power the AMCA. A GE-414 produces 98kN thrust compared to 84kN thrust of the GE-404 engine that powers the LCA Mk1and MK1A.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has one squadron of LCA in initial operational clearance (IOC) and one squadron in the final operational clearance (FOC) configuration. Induction of all IOC standard aircraft is complete, while induction of FOC standard is nearing completion.
Manufacturing of the LCA trainer is also under way with deliveries expected to begin this year.
The IAF had earlier placed orders for 20 IOC standard aircraft and 20 FOC standard aircraft, including eight twin-seater trainers.
Till date, 31 LCA — IOC and FOC combined — have been produced and 26 have been delivered, and a few aircraft are in the process of being delivered to the customer, HAL sources said. HAL has already set up a second assembly line to ramp up production from eight aircraft per year to 16 aircraft per year. The order for 83 Mk-1A is expected to be completed by 2028-29.
2. New sub-lineages of monkeypox virus emerge
Despite a slow decline in cases globally, monkeypox cases continue to rise rapidly in Latin America
Monkeypox was a neglected disease until early this year, with few reports on cases, and that too from travellers, though the disease was endemic in Central and Eastern Africa for many years. First identified in 1958 as a disease in imported monkeys in Denmark, monkeypox is a zoonotic viral infection that can infect humans and other animals. The origin and source of the disease are however unknown, therefore the name ‘monkeypox’ remains a misnomer for the disease.
The identification of a cluster of cases associated with a superspreader event in Europe in May-June this year and the subsequent rapid spread across the globe prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare the outbreak of monkeypox as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). As of September 2022, over 50,000 cases of monkeypox virus infections have been reported from over 99 countries. Over 15 deaths attributable to the disease have been reported, eight of which were reported from locations that have not historically reported monkeypox, including one from India.
As of September 2022, 10 countries account for a majority of cases (over 88%) — the U.S., Brazil, Peru, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, the U.K., Netherlands and Portugal. The disease has predominantly affected males aged between 30-43 years, although demographics have been found to differ between regions. For instance, in West and Central Africa, a larger number of cases are reported among younger individuals.
Declining in Europe
Despite an increase in the number of global cases for four consecutive weeks, the number of reported monkeypox virus infections across the world saw a decline by over 20% in the last week of August 2022. This decline is predominantly attributable to the decreasing number of reported cases in European countries.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, European countries have cumulatively reported over 20,000 cases of monkeypox, including two deaths reported from Spain. The first case of the outbreak in the region was reported in the United Kingdom in May 2022 in a man with a travel history to Nigeria. Heightened awareness and public health measures including vaccination could account for the observed decline.
As cases show a declining trend globally, numbers continue to rise in the U.S. Cumulatively, the U.S. accounts for over 30% of all the global cases, with over 18,000 infections reported from the country to date. The first death in the U.S. linked to monkeypox was reported from the state of Texas. Although the case is still being investigated by health officials to ascertain the role of monkeypox in the death of the patient, early reports from the country state that the individual was severely immune-compromised. A small proportion of pediatric cases of monkeypox have also been reported from the U.S. and with the increase in cases in the country, it is likely that more cases will be found in young children and other vulnerable groups.
Although case numbers continue to increase in the U.S., the rate of rise in cases has been plateauing, and possibly declining. In recent weeks, major cities in the U.S. including New York, San Francisco and Chicago have been showing a decline in cases following the trend in Europe. Like in Europe, this decline may be attributable to the impact of vaccination campaigns coupled with behavioural changes and heightened awareness among people who are at high risk, although more data in the coming days will reconfirm the trend.
Despite a slow decline in cases globally, monkeypox cases continue to rise rapidly in Latin America, possibly also compounded by the lack of awareness of the disease and insufficient availability of vaccines. Amongst all countries in the region, a majority of cases have been reported from Brazil and Peru and a total of three deaths have been reported from Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, although the Peruvian case is still being investigated to confirm monkeypox as the cause of death. Peru is also the third-highest in the world in terms of monkeypox infections per million inhabitants.
Currently, only a small proportion of cases of monkeypox (5%) have been reported in health-care workers globally, although most of the cases were reported to have acquired the infection in the community. Only three cases of monkeypox have been attributed to occupational exposure so far, however additional investigation will be needed to ascertain the risk of healthcare-associated transmission.
As genomic surveillance continues to provide opportunities to track the evolution of the monkeypox virus, the WHO has laid down the process of naming different variants of the virus taking into consideration the proposals put forward by scientists for a non-discriminatory nomenclature system. Following the new nomenclature, the monkeypox virus variant formerly known as the Congo Basin or Central African clade will be denoted as Clade I, while the former West African variant, which is the main circulating clade in the current outbreak, will be denoted as Clade II. Clade II of the monkeypox virus encompasses two subclades, denoted as Clade IIa and Clade IIb.
The continued genomic surveillance of monkeypox has now resulted in over 1,500 genomes available in the public domain which provides unique insights into the evolution and spread of the virus. At least two distinct lineages of the virus are known to be circulating in the present outbreak. The European outbreak was largely contributed by the IIb.B.1 lineage of virus, but a distinct but smaller lineage (IIb.A.2) presently encompassing genomes from India, the U.K., the U.S. and Thailand was also identified. This lineage has a possible origin predating the European outbreak and possibly had a cryptic spread for almost a year. The continued spread of the IIb.B.1 lineage which encompasses the majority of the genomes has resulted in many sub-lineages — over eight, including the recent one designated from Peru (B.1.6), the U.K. (B.1.7) and Germany(B.1.8).
The present monkeypox outbreak, while may have seen many learnings from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put to practice, has exposed many gaps as well. Even as case numbers are brought under control in European and North American countries, global efforts will be needed to contain the spread of the virus in regions such as Latin America and Africa.
Continued surveillance will be key to preventing future outbreaks of the disease while more in-depth science would be required to understand the pathogen, evolution, disease mechanisms and vaccine efficacy more closely. For example, the quantum of asymptomatic monkeypox transmission and the efficacy of vaccinia vaccine in preventing spread would be of immediate importance. The present outbreak, while calling for global unity and co-operation has unfortunately also put many of these concepts to test. The unavailability of vaccines in Africa which needs it the most, despite the frenzy by rich governments to corner a larger proportion, if not all of the vaccine produced, also puts into question the sincerity in efforts for global health and equity.
As we look forward to fighting more outbreaks in the future, we should keep in mind that nobody is safe until everyone is.
3. Has science evolved to record dreams?
Brainwave recordings show very little difference between REM sleep and the awake state
Our understanding of human biology has taken large strides in the last century. However, progress in our understanding of dreams has been really slow. The biological function of dreams is a grey area; the only sure thing is that most human beings dream regularly.
The phase of sleep associated with vivid dreaming is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. People who have woken up in this phase of sleep often report that they were dreaming. The rapid eye movements are a puzzle to researchers because they are difficult to measure.
A recent report (Science Vol. 377, 2022) addresses the question of whether eye movements are related to whatever is going on in the dream. Could the movements carry information about a dream that could be analysed and interpreted?
But first, some background on the interpretation of dreams. The early twentieth century was dominated by the theories of Sigmund Freud, focused on the symbolic meaning of images recollected from dreams. The discovery of REM sleep, in 1952, led to a shift away from psychoanalysis.
The brain was found to be as active in REM sleep as in the fully awake state. Yet the body was inactive, asleep. REM sleep was found in all mammals and birds. Michel Jouvet showed that inducing damage to the brain stem in a cat freed it from bodily immobility in the dream state. This cat would noisily fight with other cats, stopping when it woke up.
The recording of brainwaves (EEG) provided fresh insights. These recordings showed very little difference between REM sleep and the awake state. More surprisingly, the neuroscientist Matthew Wilson recorded brain activity in a rat while it was exploring a maze and, not much later, obtained identical brainwaves when the same rat was in REM sleep — was it solving the maze in the dream?
Database of dreams
Another way of studying dreams was to compile vast databases of dreams. Analysing 50,000 dreams led the compiler, Calvin Hall, to conclude that most dreams did not resemble surrealist paintings, and were fairly predictable. Children may smile while dreaming, as children were more likely to dream of animals, but adult dreams were not very pleasant and were often filled with moments of anxiety.
We are anxious about important things, things that need to be resolved. In a theory proposed by Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, dreaming served as a housekeeping function, a nightly sorting of that particular day’s happenings. While sorting, a few important events (possible sources of anxiety) were stored away as memories, the rest treated as clutter.
Could there be a real-time output from dreams that could be recorded? The results are conflicting. Some studies indicated that either the direction or the frequency of eye movement matched the recollected mental process in the dream. An electrooculograph (EOG) was used to record eye movements in sleeping human volunteers, it recorded whether eye movement was chiefly vertical (up-down) or horizontal (left-right). If the volunteer reported that he was looking upward in his dream, his recorded rapid eye movements were up-down.
Other studies attributed REM to random activity in the brain.
When awake, eye movements are necessary for survival. A mouse in an open field frequently moves its eyes upward, scanning the sky for danger from birds. A human pedestrian will perform left-right scans, looking out for oncoming traffic. In both these instances, the eyes move in the same direction as the head. The brain keeps track of which way your head is pointed using nerve cells called Head Direction (HD) cells. In mice, using electrodes inserted in a HD cell, it has been shown that these cells are active when the head is moving.
Senza and Scanziani recorded both REM as well as HD cell activity in sleeping mice. Remarkably, they showed that in its REM sleep, their mouse performed up-down eye movements similar to daytime scans of the sky. The HD cells too indicated the corresponding movement, although the head itself did not move, the mouse being asleep. It appears that the dream was about escaping from a predatory bird.
Can these studies be used to benefit humans? Persons who have experienced sudden, intense trauma suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). A soldier shocked by a hand grenade exploding just behind him, although otherwise unhurt, can suffer from recurring nightmares and anxiety for several years. What does he ‘see’ every night? A better understanding would lead to better rehabilitation strategies.
4. Why is inflation rate different across States?
What are local factors? How has it dented spending, particularly in rural India, as it faces more price pressures?
The story so far: India’s economy grew at a slower-than-expected 13.5% in the first quarter of the year. Private consumption picked up, but inflation has been a dampener. Retail inflation which shot up to an eight-year high of 7.79% in April, cooled slightly to 6.7% by July. However, in several States and Union Territories (UTs), including Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Telangana, consumers continued to face over 7% inflation in July, while 11 States, including West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, saw accelerated price rise in the month.
Which States are seeing the highest inflation and where are consumers better off?
Inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) crossed the central bank’s upper tolerance limit of 6% in January and has averaged 6.8% till July 2022. But an analysis of State-wise inflation prints for this period reveals that 14 States as well as three UTs, including Jammu and Kashmir, have faced higher than the national inflation, most of them averaging over 7% in the same period.
While consumers in Telangana (8.32%), West Bengal (8.06%) and Sikkim are worst-hit with 8%-plus inflation, other major States are not too far behind, with some of them posting a spike in price rise in July. The average 2022 retail inflation so far in Maharashtra and Haryana has been 7.7%, followed by Madhya Pradesh (7.52%), Assam (7.37%), Uttar Pradesh (7.27%), Gujarat and J&K both of which have averaged 7.2% and Rajasthan (7.1%).
By contrast, a dozen States have recorded retail price rise of less than 6% through 2022, including Kerala (4.8%), Tamil Nadu (5.01%), Punjab (5.35%), Delhi (5.56%) and Karnataka (5.84%). Manipur, Goa and Meghalaya, in fact, averaged inflation below 4%, at 1.07%, 3.66% and 3.84%, respectively.
Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand’s inflation averaged just 0.1% over the national rate at 6.9%, but the former averaged 8.18% in the April to June quarter before easing slightly to 7.38% in July, while the same numbers were 7.36% and 5.65% for the latter, respectively.
What explains the variations in price rise among the States?
Food price inflation that dropped to a five-month low of 6.8% in July, is a key differentiating factor for States’ inflation experience, explained Bank of Baroda chief economist Madan Sabnavis. States that are not major crop producers have higher food inflation as transport costs are added on, and those with predominantly rural areas also clock more inflation as the CPI for rural areas assigns a higher weightage to food, he pointed out. Indeed, rural inflation has averaged more than urban inflation at 7.07% from January to July, and 7.6% in the four months since it peaked at 8.38% in April. For urban consumers, inflation only crossed 6% in March 2022, has averaged 6.47% through 2022 and fallen 0.6 percentage points by July from its 2022 high of 7.09% in April.
Consumption patterns and divergences in different items’ price trends also influence variations among States. Tomato inflation dropped to 44% from 158.4% in June, while meat and fish price rise cooled to a 46-month low of 3% in July. As EY India noted in a report this week, inflation in petrol used for conveyance eased to a 32-month low of 0.3%, diesel turned negative for the first time since November 2019 at (-)2.4%, but LPG inflation hit a six-month high of 23% and kerosene touched an unprecedented 108.8% in July. That some States lowered their fuel taxes made a difference.
Why does it matter?
While the share of private consumption has spiked to nearly 60% of GDP in Q1 2022-23, this persistently high inflation has dented spending propensity, particularly in rural India that is facing more price pressures.
“Private consumption is improving, with urban demand getting support from contact-intensive services. Had it not been for high inflation and subdued rural demand due to negative real rural wage growth, private consumption would have grown faster,” said CRISIL’s chief economist Dharmakirti Joshi. With the monsoon’s progress still uneven, there is anxiety about rural demand even as inflationary pressures continue to cramp household budgets. Identifying what is driving inflation higher (or lower) in some States vis-à-vis others could help policy makers address those pressure points more specifically to provide lasting relief to consumers, apart from other broad-brush ploys such as interest rate hikes and trade curbs to cool prices of individual items. The Centre and States can co-ordinate to pinpoint and address the price triggers that may not be driven by global headwinds but local factors.
5. At Vostok-22, why is India not joining naval drill?
What message does India’s participation at the military exercises send to U.S.-EU and Russia-China groupings?
The story so far: From September 1-7, Russia is holding annual military exercises in its eastern region, with about 13 countries including India and China sending contingents. While the exercises in Vostok-2022 are routine, they are the first such multilateral exercises to be held since the Russian war in Ukraine began. They include a maritime component near the disputed islands of South Kuril, claimed by both Russia and Japan.
Who is taking part in Vostok-22?
The countries that have sent military contingents are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and Tajikistan, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which estimates that “more than 50,000 troops and 5,000 units of military equipment” including 140 aircraft and 60 warships would participate in the exercises.
According to a statement issued by the Indian Defence Ministry, the Indian Army contingent is part of “joint manoeuvres to include joint field training exercises, combat discussions, and firepower exercises.”
However, India has only sent its army contingent of the 7/8 Gorkha Rifles, and will not take part in the maritime section of the two-part event.
This is because, while the first part of the land exercises will be held in Russian military training grounds in Siberia and the Far Eastern Federal District, the maritime part of the exercises would be held in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan. These are near the disputed South Kuril islands.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry issued a demarche calling on Russia to move the location of its maritime exercises, which the Russian Ambassador in Tokyo rejected, and India’s decision not to take part in the naval exercises is believed to be in deference to Tokyo’s sensitivities.
Why has Washington criticised the exercises?
In a statement ahead of the exercises, U.S. White House Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the U.S. has “concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine,” adding that the decision to participate was up to each country, and that the government had been “pretty public” about its opposition to the exercises in talks. The Biden administration is in the process of stitching together support for more sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, as well as a demand for price-caps on Russian oil exports, and the decision by India and other countries to participate in Vostok-2022 presents a divided approach towards Russia.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), however, rejected the concerns. “Let me just emphasise that India has been regularly participating in multilateral exercises in Russia, along with a number of other countries,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, adding that “there will be only army participation in the Vostok exercises this year.”
What does India’s participation mean?
By sending an army contingent to join Russian and Chinese troops in the exercises at this time, New Delhi is aiming to send a four-pronged message. The first is its continuing relationship with Russia despite the Ukraine war, where the Modi government has decided not to join the Western sanctions regime, or to curb oil imports and other economic engagement with Moscow.
The second is to signal balance and non-alignment in the current crisis, given India has mostly abstained from votes at the United Nations seeking to criticise Russia. India also takes part in routine Indo-Pacific exercises with its Western partners including the Quad, as well as in bilateral exercises, like the India-U.S. “Yudh Abhyas” in Uttarakhand next month. These exercises will take place just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in September, where he will participate alongside leaders of Russia, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, who have sent contingents for Vostok-22 as well. It is a way of signalling that India remains comfortable in both its engagement with the U.S.-EU coalition and its rival groupings led by Russia-China. Third, by staying away from the maritime exercises, New Delhi has shown both its sensitivity to Japan’s concerns on maintaining the status quo over the disputed islands, as well as stressing the importance of territorial sovereignty and integrity for India. This coming week, India is hosting a Quad meeting on Indo-Pacific initiatives in Delhi and holding bilateral talks with the U.S. and Japan on trade and defence as well.
Finally, the message the government continues to give is that it is willing to engage with China on a number of fronts, even as military talks with China at the LAC (Line of Actual Control) remain stuck. The government, however, asserts that it cannot be “business as usual” with China until the latest logjam over Chinese troops’ transgression since April 2020 is resolved.