1. Future looms dark for 48% of bird species
Study points to increased human footprint
Humans eat 14% of the world’s surviving species of birds. However, this is not the only reason why 48% of the extant bird species are undergoing population decline, a study by nine renowned avian experts and conservationists has revealed.
The State of the World’s Birds, an annual review of environmental resources published on May 5, has attributed the threat to almost half of the 10,994 recognised extant species of birds to the expanding human footprint on the natural world and climate change.
The degradation and loss of natural habitats as well as direct overexploitation of many species are the key threats to avian biodiversity, the study led by the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) says.
The use of 37% of the surviving bird species as common or exotic pets and 14% as food are examples of direct overexploitation, the report indicates.
The review found that 5,245 or about 48% of the existing bird species worldwide were known or suspected to be undergoing population decline. While 4,295 or 39% of the species had stable trends, about 7% or 778 species had increasing population trends. The trend of 37 species was unknown.
The study underlines birdwatching as a form of avian conservation but warns of “local negative impacts” of bird feeding valued at $5 billion-$6 billion a year. It reviewed changes in avian biodiversity using data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List to reveal the changes in fortunes of all the global bird species.
The caution is for some non-provisioned species via trophic cascades, an “ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey through a food chain, which often results in dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling”. “Avian diversity peaks globally in the tropics and it is there that we also find the highest richness of threatened species. We know a lot less about the fortunes of tropical bird species than we do about temperate ones, but we are now witnessing the first signs of a new wave of extinctions of continentally-distributed bird species, which has followed the historic loss of species on islands like the dodo,” said MMU’s Alexander Lees, the lead author of the study.
The study that involved scientists from MMU, Cornell University, Birdlife International, the University of Johannesburg, Pontifical Xavierian University and the India-based Nature Conservation Foundation reviewed changes in avian biodiversity using data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
2. The multiple crises in Indian universities
Universities need greater funding, autonomy, and tolerance of activities by students and faculty
Are Indian universities under deliberate siege? Spending on higher education (as a % of government expenditure) has stagnated at 1.3-1.5% since 2012. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education continues to push higher education institutions to increase their intake capacity by 25% (in a push to implement the 10% quota for economically weaker sections), while the Ministry of Finance has sought to ban the creation of new teaching posts (Mohanty Basant Kumar, September 2020). At the central level, student financial aid was cut to ₹2,078 crore in FY 2022-23 from ₹2,482 crore in FY 2021-22; allocations for research and innovation were down by 8%, reaching ₹218 crore. Our once-great institutions of learning are beset by multiple crises – a financial crunch at the university level, a deficit in research opportunities for faculty, poor infrastructure and learning outcomes for students; with any protests hit hard by police brutality and campus repression. Is an apathetic, bureaucratic state preventing universities from blooming?
Investments in university infrastructure have shrunk. Most Indian universities and colleges have overcrowded classrooms, poor ventilation and sanitation, and unsatisfactory hostel accommodation. The Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA), which provides funding for all infrastructure loans to institutions, saw its budget reduced from ₹2,000 crore in FY 20-21 to ₹1 crore in FY 21-22. Instead, universities have been forced to take loans, but have few avenues to tap into.
Even day-to-day running costs are hard to meet. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was allocated ₹4,900 crore in FY 2022-23 versus ₹4,693 in FY 2021-22, but stifled cash flow has led to delays in salary payments for deemed/central universities. Hence, most universities are running on a deficit — Madras University saw an accumulated deficit of over ₹100 crore, forcing it to seek a ₹88 crore grant from the State government (Raman A. Ragu, March 2022). Twelve colleges of Delhi University have seen a financial shortfall, with allocations by the state reduced by nearly half (for example, Deen Dayal Upadhayaya College was allocated ₹28 crore versus a requirement of ₹42 crore in 2021). Faculty members have faced salary delays for months, with salaries coming in weeks later (examples include Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri National Sanskrit University, Delhi University, Visva-Bharati University, Nagaland University and Jharkhand University (Mohanty Basant Kumar, February 2021; Ara Ismat, November 2020). This has led to cuts in discretionary spending – many colleges in Delhi are unable to afford subscriptions to basic databases and journals. There is an urgent need to increased funding, along with establishing dedicated funding streams for infrastructure grants/loans and financial aid. Universities can also be freed up to utilise other revenue streams such as start-up royalties and advertising.
Research grants have also shriveled up. Grants under the UGC’s minor and major research project schemes have declined from ₹42.7 crore in FY 2016-17 to ₹38 lakh in FY 2020-21 (Mohanty Basant Kumar, February 2022). India has over 1,040 universities, but just 2.7% offer PhD programmes, given paltry funding and poor infrastructure. The National Research Foundation (NRF), to improve research infrastructure in universities, has not yet been approved, and may have a limited budget ($5-6 billion spread over five years). Clearly, funding for research needs to rise significantly, with institutions like the NRF supplementing (and not replacing) existing schemes (including those from the Ministry of Science). Funding should also be allocated to enable course-based research experiences for undergraduates.
Fall in standards
Meanwhile, academic standards and processes are not being maintained. Examination paper leaks have become common – the Hindi examination of the National Eligibility Test of the UGC, which enables post-graduate students who pass to teach in State and Central colleges, was leaked in June 2021. Candidates have anecdotally highlighted examination centre operators charging ₹3 lakh per candidate to help them pass (Baruah Sukrita, July 2021). More recently, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University rescheduled exams for select B.Com and B.A courses after a paper was leaked. Such institutions have failed to protect the sanctity of their examinations. Improving this will require a decentralised approach, with universities allowed to take decisions on academic programmes, promotions, cohort size, etc.
India’s universities have historically been bastions of free expression and a hub of nationalism. The Central Hindu College (Delhi), inaugurated by Madan Mohan Malaviya, was a centre for political debate during the freedom struggle, with students and teachers joining the Quit India movement, and involved in the defence of Rash Behari Bose and Lala Har Dayal in 1915. Students from the college were also involved in helping resettle partition refugees in 1947. Queen Mary’s College, Chennai, is noted to have witnessed multiple pro-Quit India Movement protests. Students involved in these would often be detained on Marina Beach road penitentiary. More recently, students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Banaras Hindu University, Delhi University, and Jamia Millia Islamia were associated with the anti-corruption movement, led by Anna Hazare. This delicate balance between the right to free expression and nationalism has been fostered across political regimes, with the leadership aware of the role of universities in strengthening democracy and civil society. And yet, of late, institutional apathy has given way to repression. Police action against students of select universities (JNU, Jamia Millia, for instance) for campus protests, along with arrests and incarceration, have cast a pall on free expression in campuses. Students and faculty members are routinely castigated as ‘anti-national’, among other epithets. We need to embrace tolerance for a diversity of views in our campuses – our students have formative experiences there and must have the space to define themselves as individuals. If free expression is not fostered, how will our universities champion critical thinking?
India’s higher education institutions exist in a funerary state. This is reflected in global rankings – there are just eight Indian universities in the Top 500 in the QS World University Rankings. The National Education Policy (2020) has sought to foster critical thinking and problem solving, along with social, ethical and emotional capacities and dispositions. Enabling this will require an encouraging ecosystem, with greater funding, autonomy and tolerance of universities (and activities by students/faculty). Without this, talented Indian citizens will continue to escape abroad, while policymakers lament India’s brain drain.
3. The Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation report
How will the redrawing of electoral boundaries affect the people of J&K? Does it set the stage for elections?
On May 5, 2022 the Jammu & Kashmir Delimitation Commission submitted its final report, two years after it was appointed to redraw the electoral boundaries in J&K.
After the final draft by the Commission, six additional Assembly seats are earmarked for Jammu (revised to 43) and one for Kashmir (revised to 47).
The Centre will now fix a date from which the order will come into effect. Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra will then rationalise the polling stations and revise the electoral rolls.
The story so far: After multiple objections and extensions, the J&K Delimitation Commission submitted its final report on May 5, 2022, two years after it was appointed to redraw the electoral boundaries in Jammu and Kashmir as per the mandate set by the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. In its order, a notification of which was published in the Gazette of India, the three-member panel carved out additional six Assembly seats for the Jammu region and one for the Kashmir valley as per the Act. The final order of the Commission has set the stage for elections in the erstwhile State that last held Assembly polls in 2014.
What is delimitation?
Delimitation is the process of redrawing boundaries of the Lok Sabha or Assembly constituencies, the Election Commission of India states. The process is carried out in accordance with changes in the demographic status of a State or Union Territory. Delimitation is done by a Delimitation Commission or Boundary Commission.
The orders of the independent body cannot be questioned before any court. In the past, Delimitation Commissions were set up in 1952, 1963, 1973, and 2002. Before the abrogation of Article 370 that accorded a special status to J&K, delimitation of its Assembly seats was carried out by the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution and the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957. The delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies, meanwhile, was governed by the Constitution.
What is the J&K Delimitation Commission?
The last time a delimitation exercise was carried out in Jammu and Kashmir was in 1995, based on the 1981 Census. Jammu and Kashmir was under President’s rule at that time. There was no Census in 1991 in J&K due to the tense situation in the valley. In 2001, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed a law to put the delimitation process on hold till 2026. The Centre set up a Delimitation Commission in March 2020, six months after the State of Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated and reorganised as the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai, was tasked with delimiting the Assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies in the UT of J&K based on the 2011 Census and in accordance with the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 and the Delimitation Act, 2002.
The panel was given a year to complete the delimitation plan but was given two extensions. After considering submissions and considering factors like “geographical features, communication means, public convenience and contiguity of areas”, the Delimitation Commission released its final report on May 5.
What are the key takeaways from the final report?
First, J&K is split into two divisions, with Jammu having 37 Assembly seats and Kashmir 46. After the Commission’s final draft, six additional Assembly seats are earmarked for Jammu (revised to 43) and one for Kashmir (revised to 47). The total number of Assembly seats in the UT will increase from 83 to 90.
Second, the Commission has recommended the Centre to nominate at least two Kashmiri Pandits to the Legislative Assembly.
Third, the panel has proposed nine seats for the Scheduled Tribes (STs). These will include six in Jammu (Budhal, Gulabgarh, Surankote, Rajouri, Mendhar, Thanamandi) and three in the valley (Gurez, Kangan, Kokernag). Seven seats have been reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the Jammu region.
Fourth, the Commission has also recommended that the government consider giving displaced persons from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir representation in the Assembly through nomination.
Fifth, in its final order, the Commission has noted that it has considered the “Jammu & Kashmir region as one single Union Territory”, and merged Rajouri and Poonch (from Jammu division) with the Anantnag constituency in the Kashmir region. The new constituency has been renamed as Kishtwar-Rajouri.
Sixth, the Commission has said it renamed 13 constituencies considering public sentiment in the region. The order shows that in Kashmir, the names of Gulmarg (from Tangmarg), Hazratbal, Zadibal, Lal Chowk, Eidgah have been restored. In the Jammu region, the name of the Gulabgarh constituency has been restored.
The final order of the Delimitation Commission for Jammu and Kashmir holds a lot of political significance. The completion of the delimitation exercise will pave the way for Assembly elections — a crucial step in the possible restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had stated earlier this year that the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir will be restored “once the situation becomes normal”.
The Commission has added seven more Assembly seats, keeping the 2011 census as the basis. With this, Jammu with a population of 53 lakh (43% of the total population of 122 crore) will have 47% seats, while Kashmir which has a population of 68 lakh (56%) will have 52% of the seats.
The new constituency has five ST Assembly segments from the Jammu region. In J&K, Gujjar and Bakarwals form the ST community which is 11.9% of the total population, as per the 2011 census. This restructuring is likely to have an electoral impact.
Who criticised the Commission?
Regional political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, barring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have slammed the Commission for acting as an “extension of the BJP”. Rejecting the recommendations, former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti termed the proposal as another means to disempower the people of J&K.
Ms. Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party had boycotted both visits of the Commission to the UT. Her party colleague, Naeem Akhtar, alleged that elections have been rigged even before voting. “It’s another sad chapter of history written by the rulers sitting in New Delhi,” he told The Hindu.
The National Conference (NC) claimed that the final order was an attempt to help the BJP get an advantage in elections. The NC has been critical of the Commission and had boycotted it before the intervention of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Peoples Conference and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) have also expressed their disappointment. The Congress said the proposal of six additional seats to Jammu and one to Kashmir “smacks of pre-determined erroneous assessment”. The BJP, meanwhile, has said it is happy with the panel for “doing a great job”.
What lies ahead?
The Delimitation Commission for Jammu and Kashmir has issued a notification of its final order in the Gazette of India. As per rules, the report has been published in newspapers.
The Centre will now fix a date from which the delimitation order will come into effect. Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra told The Hindu that the EC will then rationalise the polling stations and revise the electoral rolls. This will pave the way for the much-awaited first Assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir after being stripped of its special status in 2019.
4. Rakhigarhi skeletons’ DNA samples sent for analysis
Many artefacts found at Harappa site
DNA samples collected from two human skeletons unearthed at a necropolis of a Harappan-era city site in Haryana have been sent for scientific examination, the outcome of which might tell about the ancestry and food habits of people who lived in the Rakhigarhi region thousands of years ago.
The skeletons of two women were found a couple of months ago at mound number 7 (named RGR 7 by the Archaeological Survey of India or ASI), believed to be nearly 5,000 years old. Pots and other artefacts were also found buried next to them in a pit, part of the funerary rituals back in the Harappan Civilisation era, ASI officials said.
“Seven mounds scattered around two villages (Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur) in Hisar district are part of the Rakhigarhi archaeological site. RGR 7 is a cemetery site of the Harappan period when this was a well-organised city. The two skeletons were unearthed about two months ago by our team. And DNA samples were collected by experts about two weeks ago,” Joint Director-General, ASI, S.K. Manjul said.
At present RGR 1, RGR 3 and RGR 7 have been taken up for investigation.
Dr. Manjul, who is leading the excavation team at the Rakhigarhi site since it commenced on February 24, 2022, said the DNA analysis will help answer a lot of questions, anthropological or otherwise. The samples will be first examined by the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences, Lucknow for preliminary investigation and scientific comparison, before being sent further for forensic analysis from an anthropological perspective, he said.
Rakhigarhi, in Haryana, became an archaeological hotspot when Amarendra Nath, former director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), undertook excavations at the site in 1997.
- The ASI team unearthed a fire altar, parts of a city wall, drainage structures as well as a hoard of semi-precious beads.
- Villagers subsequently began to see the significance of the terracotta shards that littered Rakhigarhi.
- It is a 5,000-year-old site that showcases continuity from the Harappan age to the present times. The village also has havelis that are a couple of hundred years old.
- The site is located in the Sarasvati river plain, some 27 km from the seasonal Ghaggar river.
- In May 2012, the Global Heritage Fund, declared Rakhigarhi one of the 10 most endangered heritage sites in Asia.